In a case which tests the boundaries between personal commitment and public service, a Christian nurse in Somerset has been suspended from duty after offering to pray for an elderly patient in her care.
It seems that the patient reported the incident to the primary care trust concerned, a public body, and that after taking into account a previous incident the nurse was disciplined.
Caroline Petrie, aged 45, stands accused of failing to show a commitment to equality and diversity - that is to the different beliefs and outlooks of patients and staff in a public institution - following the incident.
She is now awaiting the outcome of a hearing, and could potentially face the sack. However, managers and the primary trust authorities are likely to try to seek a mediation of the situation.
The community nurse, who carries out home visits in North Somerset, has been formally suspended on pay by the primary care trust, report news agencies. The married mother of two argues she did not force her beliefs on anyone but simply asked if the woman would like a prayer said for her, as she has done with other patients.
Ms Petrie, who is a Baptist, said: "I'm not angry, and I understand if people don't believe in the way that I do. But I am upset because I enjoy this job and [this] is a valuable part of the care I give... I saw my patients suffering and as I believe in the power of prayer, I began asking them if they wanted me to pray for them. They are absolutely delighted."
Apparently the incident that led to her suspension occurred after she visited a woman in Winscombe in December 2008. She said she asked the woman: "Would you like me to pray for you?" after putting dressings on her legs. The woman replied "No, thank you", and Petrie insists she did not press the matter.
The woman, understood to be in her 70s, is nevertheless believed to have taken exception to what she saw as unwanted proselytising, and told the trust about the incident. Petrie was then challenged by her superiors.
She had been reprimanded over similar incidents before. In October 2009 she gave a homemade prayer card to another elderly patient - whose carer was unhappy with it.
Simon Barrow, from the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, commented: "One hopes that an issue like this might be resolved in the joint interests of patients, carers, institution and staff without turning it into a huge legal and political issue. But this incident clearly illustrates the 'culture clash' that can emerge in our public institutions as the Christian faith loses its predominance within a society that has previously been shaped by its story."
He added: "With the demise of Christendom, people who do not believe in a particular way often find the presumption that they should or might do so troublesome. On the other hand, Christians who have been used to different implicit 'ground rules' feel that their identity is being eroded by the requirement to maintain a clearer boundary between what they might do in a voluntary capacity (including praying for people), and the culture of restraint being developed in publicly-funded bodies where people of no faith and other faith may see things very differently.
"This is something that needs much more debate and constructive discussion. There is a tendency for disputes of this kind fairly rapidly to descend into confrontation," said Barrow.
"One can almost predict that some campaigners will try to turn this into another case of 'Christians being persecuted', while others will say it is about 'Christians trying to force their beliefs on people at the taxpayers' expense'. That kind of row gets nowhere. Instead we need to look at adjusting to change and redefining roles."