Andrew Alderson – Telegraph.co.uk February 1, 2009
Caroline Petrie, a committed Christian, has been accused by her employers of failing to demonstrate a "personal and professional commitment to equality and diversity".
She faces disciplinary action and could lose her job over the incident.
Mrs Petrie, a married mother of two, says she has been left shocked and upset by the action taken against her.
She insists she has never forced her own religious beliefs on anyone but politely inquired if the elderly patient wanted her to pray for her – either in the woman's presence or after the nurse had left the patient's home.
"I simply couldn't believe that I have been suspended over this. I knew I hadn't done anything wrong. All I am trying to do is help my patients, many of whom want me to pray for them," she said.
Mrs Petrie, 45, is a community nurse employed by North Somerset Primary Care Trust to carry out home visits to sick and elderly patients.
The incident which led to her suspension took place at the home of a woman patient in Winscombe, North Somerset.
"It was around lunchtime and I had spent about 20 to 25 minutes with her. I had applied dressings to her legs and shortly before I left I said to her: 'Would you like me to pray for you?'.
"She said 'No, thank you.' And I said: 'OK.' I only offered to pray for her because I was concerned about her welfare and wanted her to get better."
However, after the incident on December 15, she was contacted by the trust and asked to explain her actions.
The woman patient, who is believed to be in her late 70s, is understood to have complained to the trust.
Mrs Petrie will not disclose the woman's name or reveal the precise nature of her ailment because it would breach patient confidentiality.
Mrs Petrie, who lives in Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset, said she was initially confronted the next day by a nursing sister who said the patient had been taken aback by her question about prayer.
"I said: 'I am sorry. Did I offend or upset her?' The sister said: 'No, no. She was just a bit taken back. You must be aware of your professional code of conduct. I would be careful.'
"But the next day my coordinator left a message on my home phone and I realised this had been taken further."
Mrs Petrie said that she often offers to pray for her patients and that many take her up on it.
She either prays with them or after she has left their home. The nurse has been a committed Christian since she was ten – after her mother died of breast cancer.
Initially, she was Church of England but she switched to the Baptist faith nine years ago. "My faith is very important to me," she said.
Mrs Petrie had previously been reprimanded for an incident in Clevedon last October when she offered to give a small, home-made prayer card to an elderly, male patient, who had happily accepted it.
On this occasion, the patient's carer, who was with him, raised concerns over the incident.
Alison Withers, Mrs Petrie's boss at the time, wrote to her at the end of November saying: "As a nurse you are required to uphold the reputation of your profession.
"Your NMC [Nursing Midwifery Council] code states that 'you must demonstrate a personal and professional commitment to equality and diversity' and 'you must not use your professional status to promote causes that are not related to health'."
In the letter, Mrs Petrie, who qualified as a nurse in 1985, was asked to attend an equality and diversity course and warned: "If there is any further similar incident it may be treated as potential misconduct and the formal disciplinary procedure could be instigated."
Mrs Petrie said: "I stopped handing out prayer cards after that but I found it more and more difficult [not to offer them]. My concern is for the person as a whole, not just their health.
"I was told not to force my faith on anyone but I could respond if patients themselves brought up the subject [of religion]."
It is the second incident – the offer to pray for a patient – that led to the disciplinary action. She was suspended from her part-time job, without pay, on December 17.
She faced an internal disciplinary meeting last Wednesday and expects to learn the outcome this week.
At last week's hour-long meeting, Mrs Petrie says she was told the patient had said she was not offended by the prayer offer but the woman argued that someone else might have been.
The nurse had her representative from the Royal College of Nursing present Mrs Petrie's husband, Stewart, 48, works as a BT engineer and they have two sons, aged 14 and ten.
The couple attend Milton Baptist Church every Sunday and Mrs Petrie said: "Stuart and I have decided to put God first in our lives."
Mrs Petrie, who has worked for the trust since February last year, has already taken legal advice from the Christian Legal Centre, which seeks to promote religious freedom and, particularly, to protect Christians and Christianity.
The centre, in turn, has instructed Paul Diamond, the leading religious rights barrister. Andrea Williams, the founder and director of the centre, said: "We are backing this case all the way."
A spokesman for North Somerset Primary Care Trust said: "Caroline Petrie has been suspended pending an investigation into the matter.
"She is a bank nurse and she has been told we will not be using her in this capacity until the outcome of our investigation is known.
"We always take any concerns raised by our patients most seriously and conscientiously investigate any matter of this nature brought to our attention.
"We are always keen to be respectful of our patients' views and sensitivity as well as those of our staff.”
Last updated 05/02/2009