If this is correct–and given the constantly shifting information on the moving target known as health care reform, it might have been true yesterday but not today–then it looks like American United for Separation of Church and State has its work cut out for it. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Reporting from Washington – Backed by some of the most powerful members of the Senate, a little-noticed provision in the healthcare overhaul bill would require insurers to consider covering Christian Science prayer treatments as medical expenses.

The provision was inserted by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) with the support of Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry and the late Edward M. Kennedy, both of Massachusetts, home to the headquarters of the Church of Christ, Scientist.

The measure would put Christian Science prayer treatments — which substitute for or supplement medical treatments — on the same footing as clinical medicine. While not mentioning the church by name, it would prohibit discrimination against “religious and spiritual healthcare.”

It would have a minor effect on the overall cost of the bill — Christian Science is a small church, and the prayer treatments can cost as little as $20 a day. But it has nevertheless stirred an intense controversy over the constitutional separation of church and state, and the possibility that other churches might seek reimbursements for so-called spiritual healing.

The issue is not the amount of money, of course, but whether it’s constitutional–or even prudent–for the government to be paying “practitioners” for praying over people, especially since the provision would presumably cover only Christian Science prayers. (Attractive as the idea of having another revenue stream is, I doubt that I could get the government to pay me to pray over my sick parishioners, even if I wanted to.) At least one legal scholar doesn’t think this is so cut-and-dried, however:

Michael McConnell, who heads the Stanford University Constitutional Law Center, said that “as long as patients are the ones who choose, and religious choices are given no legal preference or advantage, the proposals would appear to be consistent with constitutional standards.”

I have a lot of respect for Professor McConnell, but I can’t help but think about the can of worms this could potentially open. Of course, that can has already been opened to a degree by virtue of the fact (one I previously hadn’t known about) that Christian Science praying can be taken as a medical tax deduction under current IRS regulations and in military family health insurance, and I wonder whether such provisions have ever been challenged in court, if nothing else as a form of preferential treatment for Christian Science over other faiths that believe in the healing power of prayer. But the idea of a federal money spigot being opened for “spiritual healing” just has “Welcome, Charlatans!” written all over it.

PS–I can’t help but ask this. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, wrote in her book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures:

Because matter has no consciousness or Ego, it cannot act; its conditions are illusions, and these false conditions are the source of all seeming sickness. Admit the existence of matter, and you admit that mortality (and therefore disease) has a foundation in fact. Deny the existence of matter, and you can destroy the belief in material conditions. When fear disappears, the foundation of disease is gone.

Now, if it is true that matter doesn’t actually exist, then what exactly is it that Christian Science practitioners are praying about? How can the “body” be healed if there’s no body? And if the answer is that the healing sought is strictly mental, then isn’t this actually a form of teaching rather than healing? After all, Baker also wrote:

The cause of all so-called disease is mental, a mortal fear, a mistaken belief or conviction of the necessity and power of ill-health; also a fear that Mind is helpless to defend the life of man and incompetent to control it. Without this ignorant human belief, any circumstance is of itself powerless to produce suffering.

This would suggest that for healing to take place, it isn’t prayer at all that’s necessary, but correction of a mistaken belief, which seems to fit more in the category of preaching or teaching. In any case, the idea that the federal government might fund this practice strikes me as more than a bit bizarre.