By Norris Burkes July 18, 2021

We all remember the surprise we felt when our high school teacher announced, “Put your books away and take out a piece of paper – Pop quiz!”

Well, today’s column is a pop quiz to appraise your understanding of Freedom of Religion. It concludes my three-part series celebrating American freedoms. 

In each scenario below, you’re a healthcare chaplain responding to a patient request. Do you honor the request? Yes or no? 

Begin test.

  1. 1. You are in a combat hospital where a Muslim child is dying of 3rd degree burns. His father requests that you bring a Koran, read aloud a specific passage, and reverently place the Koran on his child’s forehead.
  1. 2. A millennial patient practicing new age religion asks you to obtain a healing crystal and tape it around his wrists.
  1. 3. In a Catholic hospital, a Baptist pastor asks you to remove the crucifix hanging above the bed of his dying wife. His protestant tradition favors a bare cross to emphasize the resurrected Christ instead of the image of the dying Christ. 

OK, put down your pencil. I know you did well, especially if you recognized these scenarios taken from past columns.

Let’s review.

  1. 1. If you answered, “no,” because you want to read from the Bible instead, then I’ll repeat what I told my USAF chaplain colleague when he declined this opportunity. 

As military chaplains, we serve folks of all religious and nonreligious traditions. We’re privileged to preach personal views from Sunday’s pulpit. However, when on the battlefield or visiting duty stations, our views remain secondary in the same way a combat medic would set aside her own wounds to attend the wounds of others.   

  1. 2. You answered yes, even though it feels “woo-woo” or weird. You know that your opinion has little to do with the patient. You understand that relating to people from other religions requires you to respectfully demonstrate that their beliefs are equally important.
  1. 3. Hopefully, you said yes. Or did you decline because it offends your Catholic upbringing?  If so, I’d ask you to consider how denying someone their religious freedom might threaten your future religious choices. After all, what if an ambulance someday takes you to a Baptist hospital?

My questions introduce a broader one. Must our faith be binary? Does it represent our way or no way? Is God a yes or no question? An either-or proposition?

In relating to other faiths, can we consider answers that are “yes/and.”? Is it possible to understand “Freedom of Religion” as something that honors your faith AND mine?

My friend, Gerald Jones, who manages a Roseville chaplain department uses similar questions to screen his potential volunteers. 

He asks, “If the family of a dying Buddhist patient asks you to read Buddhist prayers, would you be comfortable doing so?” 

If they say “yes,” Jones moves the process forward.

If they say no, Jones will ask, “If your family member was dying would you be okay with a Buddhist chaplain reading a Psalm from the Bible?’” 

If they say yes, Jones will then ask, “What’s the difference?’” 

My friend tells me, “Those willing to wrestle with these questions are the ones typically invited to join our training.”

Jones and I agree. Hospital Chaplaincy is about patient needs, not chaplain needs. If a potential trainee cannot work in that setting, we encourage other places of ministry.

Finally – a bonus question. A female patient asks you to call her Episcopal parish and specifies they send a male priest. Do you make that call?

Yes, I made the call, but with great trepidation. How did the priest answer? 

“Remind my parishioner that she doesn’t get to choose who brings the sacrament. She’ll get who she gets.”

I paused, but I guess he heard my eyes roll, as he replied. “Never mind. I’ll tell her myself when I get there.”

Wowzer. I guess Freedom of Religion has some limits.


Norris’ books are available at Contact him at or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715. Twitter @chaplain.