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Visitors guidelines at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., are being revised after an Iowa congressman complained Dec. 2 that the rules kept family members, priests, ministers and others from bringing Bibles, rosaries or other religious materials to patients.
A section of the guidelines designed to protect patients from proselytizers was rescinded last week after Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, discussed it on the House floor, asserting it violated the First Amendment protecting free exercise of religion.
The guidelines, signed by Walter Reed-Bethesda's chief of staff Army Col. Charles Callahan, stated that "No religious items, (i.e. Bibles, reading materials and/or facts) are allowed to be given away or used during a visit."
The intent was to respect patients' religious practices and preserve their privacy, explained hospital spokeswoman Sandy Dean. She said patients often are visited by volunteers from benevolent organizations as well as strangers, ranging from celebrities, politicians and well-meaning VIPs, and the guidelines were developed to respect patients' own beliefs.
"If the family, if friends, wanted to bring things in, it was fine," Dean said. "The way the policy was written was incorrect. … We are rewriting the policy," she said.
King said the rule kept priests from walking in "with the Eucharist and offering communion to a patient who might be on their deathbed."
"These military men and women who are recovering have given their all to America to defend the Constitution, and here they are, the people who come to visit can't bring in religious artifact, can't bring a Bible," King said.
Dean said the guidelines are necessary because the hospital needs to protect its patients, who declare their religious preferences when they arrive.
"We want to make sure that visitors are respecting our patients' religious practices and culture," she said.
Hospital leaders are revising the policy carefully but she could not say when it would be complete.
"We are having a lot of eyes on it to ensure it's articulated correctly," she said.