The case of the Nurse who has been suspended for telling one of her patients that she was offering to pray for her raises some interesting issues about the manner in which professionals should or should not involve their private beliefs in the work that they do.
Caroline Petrie, 45, is a community nurse and is employed by North Somerset Primary Care Trust to carry out home visits to sick and elderly patients.
According to the National Secular Society this is not the first time that this nurse has allegedly mixed up her private beliefs with her professional duties. It is alleged that on a previous occasion she claimed to have cured a urinary tract infection solely through the power of prayer without mention of treatment given at the same time.
Her professional Code of Conduct states "you must deliver care based on the best available evidence" and the "power of prayer" hardly qualifies on that count.
No doubt she is well intentioned and genuinely believes in the care that she gives. But the problem with caring professionals bringing their religious beliefs directly into the process of giving care is that people being cared for are always vulnerable.
A care-giving relationship always carries a power discrepancy between the carer and the cared for. This is why professional training in the caring professions is always at pains to ensure care professionals do not abuse their power.
For a Christian to bring the suggested power of their prayer into the caring process leaves the person cared for potentially feeling pressurised to agree with what is suggested - whatever their own beliefs. People who are cared for have a natural anxiety and worry about the consequences if they offend those who are doing the caring. This is well established in the professional literature.
It would be equally wrong of course for an Atheist or Agnostic care-giver to seek to force their own views into the caring process. For example if a Christian patient talks about hoping that prayers being said for them will assist them - it would not be appropriate for an Atheist Nurse to try to undermine those views in the course of giving care.
The reaction of some right wing newspapers and the Christian Legal Centre in the UK has been predictably outraged by this suspension. But before they get too high and mighty about it they might stop and ask themselves - what if the nurse had been a Scientologist who was offering to "audit" the patient? What if the nurse had been Hindu or Muslim? Or a Pagan who had offered to make sacrifice for the patient? The likely reaction would have been a different kind of outrage I suspect.
Ultimately this is not about Christians being persecuted by Atheists. This is about professionals having a responsibility to practice their profession within the confines of their profession role. It is about professionals not seeking to convert or influence vulnerable patients to believe or not believe things that are nothing to do with the care giving process.
A Christian patient has every right , if they wish, to seek care from a Christian Nursing Agency. They would then know what they were getting. But within a National Health Service which gives care to all regardless of race or creed it is not acceptable to bring faith into the process. Where the patient makes clear that they are seeking religious succour then this should be provided by a minister or a priest or similar but not by the nursing or medical professional.
This Nurse needs to be reminded of her professional responsibilities. She probably does not need to be sacked though, unless there is a more substantial history of such poor practice. Hopefully she can return to work somewhat wiser about how she should conduct herself professionally.