Monday, September 12, 2011

Prayer and Personal Privacy

When Calls for Prayer Trample Personal Privacy
By Bill Broadway, Washington Post Staff Writer

Disclosing Details of Members' Health Could Pose Legal Problem for Churches

Bryan Mitnaul of Virginia Beach might be the only person to have won a lawsuit against a church over the publication of personal medical information.

But he won't hold the title long if religious communities don't revise the way they publicize such information, according to specialists who advise clergy on privacy matters.

In Mitnaul's case, an April 2000 article posted on the Web site of Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland heralded the minister of music's return from an illness:

"We have good news for you!" the article read. "Bryan Mitnaul is returning to Fairmount after a long medical leave of absence.

"Since the summer of last year, Bryan has been treated for bi-polar illness, a condition which at time has resulted in serious depression for him. Various therapies and medications have been tried, and finally, after much experimentation, his health has improved considerably. For that we are all very happy."

The church's comments, no matter how well-intentioned, crossed a line that should be a warning to any religious group that shares members' medical information in newsletters and during worship services, several ministers and specialists said.

Legally, publishing details of Mitnaul's condition without his permission was an invasion of privacy because it "included information in a way that would be highly offensive to the ordinary person," said Richard Hammar, general counsel for the Missouri-based Assemblies of God and publisher of Church Law & Tax Report, a national bimonthly newsletter.

Some conditions carry more of a stigma than others, and mental illness is one of them, Hammar said. Saying a person is recovering from a heart attack or being treated for cancer is "much less offensive," he said.

That's the way an Ohio appeals court ruled in 2002, citing invasion of privacy in sending the case back to a lower court that had issued a summary judgment favoring the church.

"It would have been okay to say I had been in the hospital and was very ill and had recovered to the point I could return to work," Mitnaul, 49, said in a telephone interview from the Eastern Shore Chapel, an Episcopal church where he has been director of music for 21/2 years.

Most people in the 1,600-member Cleveland church knew of his depression, Mitnaul said. But no one other than the pastoral staff was aware of the diagnosis, which was "put on the Internet for anyone in the world to see."

"It changed who I was, not just to the people at Fairmount church, but anyone who did a Google search," said Mitnaul, adding that he is healthy and that most Eastern Shore members are unaware of his medical history and the lawsuit. "Once it's out there, you can't get it back. It took a while to get it off the Web site."

Mitnaul said he settled out of court "because it was too stressful" to continue to be drawn into an increasingly antagonistic relationship with the church. In addition to the dispute over the Web site announcement, the church terminated his employment after he was unable to return to work on an agreed-upon date, saying he was "not physically or mentally able . . . to continue in the position in which you have so distinguished yourself," according to court documents.

On that matter, too, the appellate court ruled in Mitnaul's favor. But it's the privacy issue that has caught the attention of denominational legal offices, especially with last year's implementation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

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