Faith-healing a First Amendment dilemma

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A jury in February convicted an Oregon couple, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley, of criminally negligent homicide in the death of their teenage son for relying solely on faith-healing as their son lay severely ill. The sentencing of the couple to 16 months in prison raises difficult questions about how states should balance their obligation to uphold religious free-exercise and parental rights against their interest in protecting child health.

Sixteen-year-old Neil Beagley died from complications arising from a urinary-tract blockage, a condition that could have been easily treated with traditional medical care, according to doctors who testified at trial.

The conviction in the Oregon case comes almost exactly two years after the 15-month-old granddaughter of the couple, who belong to the Followers of Christ church, which eschews standard medical care, died after her parents denied her medical treatment.

Under the applicable federal law, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, there is no federal requirement for parents to provide their children with medical treatment that is against their religious belief. The law essentially kicks the ball to the states to determine how to regulate faith-healing, allowing them — but not requiring them — to prosecute parents who rely on faith-healing rather than medical treatment for their children.

Though every state has laws criminalizing child neglect, states vary in the extent to which they allow parents to raise a free-exercise defense in prosecutions for cases in which a child died after parents relied on faith-healing. A few states allow almost unconditional protection for parents, while most limit exclusive reliance on faith-healing when a child’s life is in danger.

States enacted such statutes in the 1970s, when the federal government conditioned federal child abuse prevention grant money to the states on the legislatures’ shielding parents who refuse medical care for children for religious reasons. The provision was pushed by President Richard Nixon’s advisers Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, both Christian Scientists who also espoused faith-healing. Though the provision was rescinded in 1983, the state laws remained on the books.

Oregon, because it is home to the small Followers of Christ community, has been a hotbed of controversy over how much deference to accord parents’ religious views when parents make life-or-death medical decisions for their children.

For several decades, Oregon had one of the most permissive religious-exemption laws in the nation, and by the late 1990s it even granted immunity against manslaughter charges to parents who relied on faith-healing.

Then in 1999, in response to an uproar after many Followers of Christ children had died from what authorities said were easily treatable conditions, the state Legislature amended the law to eliminate the religious-liberty defense for parents in some criminal prosecutions for child neglect.

Even without a statutory free-exercise defense, though, Carl and Raylene Worthington, the son-in-law and daughter of the Beagleys, were acquitted of manslaughter by a sympathetic jury last July in the death of their own 15-month-old daughter. They, too, shunned medical attention for their daughter’s pneumonia in favor of praying over her and anointing her with oil; the jury did convict Carl Worthington of a lesser misdemeanor offense.

Judge Steven Maurer, the presiding judge in the Beagley trial, described the case as one in which parents should have understood “the boundaries of their faith.” Demarcating those boundaries, however, is tricky business, especially when they butt against medical science, child-abuse prevention, parental rights and self-consent.

Under current case law, there is arguably little refuge under the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause for failing to provide medical care to children for religious reasons.

In 2001, the Supreme Court declined an opportunity to address directly the First Amendment constitutionality of faith-healing in Nixon v. Pennsylvania, leaving in place the conviction of a couple who prayed over their dying diabetic 16-year-old daughter rather than provide her with insulin.

Sixty-year-old precedent holds that parental rights can be reasonably restricted when the well-being of children is at stake. The Court held in Prince v. Massachusetts (1944) that states have wide discretion in limiting parental authority to ensure children’s welfare.

“The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to … ill health or death,” Justice Wiley B. Rutledge wrote. “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full consent and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.”

It is that last phrase, though, that parents accused of neglect in faith-healing trials sometimes underscore. Under Oregon law, 16-year-old Neil Beagley was old enough to make certain medical decisions on his own. The Beagleys argued that their son himself decided not to seek medical care and adamantly made his wishes known to his family. The state contended, in turn, that a boy who was raised to believe medicine was weakness could not make an informed decision and could not understand the benefits that a hospital might offer.

With states differing widely on how much, if any, protection to afford parents who rely on faith-healing, future battles are sure to ensue in both the courtroom and the public arena. A child’s right to life is hardly contentious, yet there remains no consensus on how to protect religious practice while ensuring that no child’s health is jeopardized.

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