The following comes from a March 24 story in the Columbian.

A statue of Mother Joseph sits on display as a prayer circle takes place March 13 at the Heritage Chapel at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. PeaceHealth is a Catholic-sponsored nonprofit, but it’s also a health care corporation with its own board and bylaws.

Southwest Washington Medical Center joined PeaceHealth’s network after the two organizations finalized a merger in December 2010. The hospital was renamed PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.

Sarah Dunne, the ACLU’s legal director in Seattle, said currently 60 percent of hospital beds in Washington are operated by secular health providers while 40 percent are run by religiously affiliated organizations.

According to an analysis by the ACLU, if eight proposed and pending mergers are approved by the end of 2013 those percentages will significantly shift. Forty-seven percent of hospital beds in the state would be run by religiously affiliated hospitals, according to the group’s analysis, while the share of secular beds would decrease to 53 percent.

By the end of this year, Dunne said, mergers in Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties could result in 100 percent of the hospitals in those communities being run by religiously affiliated institutions.

Hospitals are supposed to be places of healing, but Washington’s hospitals are becoming places of conflict between religion and government over health care services.

The state’s American Civil Liberties Union is questioning whether health care regulatory agencies and public hospital districts should grant approval to faith-based hospitals — primarily Catholic — that don’t offer reproductive and end-of-life services that are widely available at secular hospitals. In some rural areas of the state, the ACLU says, hospital consolidations and mergers could leave communities only with Catholic hospitals which refuse, based on Catholic religious beliefs, to provide such services.

“We’re very troubled by what’s going on,” said Sarah Dunne, legal director for the Seattle-based American Civil Liberties Union of Washington Foundation. The ACLU is pressing its case on several fronts, including the possibility of legal action. The group also is challenging proposed partnerships between Vancouver-based PeaceHealth and other health care providers.

PeaceHealth, a Catholic-sponsored health system, is pushing back. The nonprofit health care giant — Clark County’s top private employer — says its partnerships with public hospital districts and others are well within legal parameters. And the organization stands by its right to deny certain services based on its religious principles, officials say, as it continues a long history of improving health care in a variety of communities.

“All we have to point to is our record of service,” said Jenny Ulum, a PeaceHealth spokeswoman….

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