August 17, 2010; Source: St. Peterburg Times | If the City of Tarpon Springs wants to keep Helen Ellis Hospital open, it is going to have to agree to eliminate a clause in the city’s lease agreement with the hospital that prohibits discrimination based on religion.

The City of Tarpon Springs owns the Helen Ellis Hospital and leases it to University Community Health based in Tampa. UCH is close to consummating a merger with the Adventist Health System Sunbelt, associated with the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

The city’s lease clause prohibits the display of religious symbols in the hospital, religious proselytizing, and policies that would preclude the provision of abortion services.  The AHS would eliminate this clause and establish other Seventh-day Adventist policies and beliefs such as no work for non-emergency workers and no major medical procedures from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and no pork or shell fish on the cafeteria menu.

On employment, AHS says that its 50,000 employees worldwide include Hindus, Muslims, and atheists, but all AHS hospital CEOs are Seventh-day Adventists.  The real issue is the clause itself—that its existence goes against the basics of a faith-based institution. “We would have to have it removed before we can lease the hospital,” an AHS spokeswoman said.

For the city, it’s over a double barrel. If it sticks to the clause, AHS could close the facility, depriving Tarpon Springs of the hospital resource and depriving the local government of the $303,620 annual lease payment it gets from UCH. Health care isn’t affected by having or not having shellfish on the cafeteria menu or the presence of a religious symbol on the wall of a hospital room, but the principle of prohibiting religious discrimination (or favoritism) in hiring is also important. Will the City agree to ditch the lease clause in order to keep Helen Ellis Hospital open?—Rick Cohen

Because of an editing error this Newswire originally cited the city of Tampa instead of the city of Tarpon Springs as the location of the Helen Ellis Hospital.