Groups call on states to dump exemptions for faith-healing parents

Friday, June 12, 1998

The recent deaths of three Oregon children have prompted national child-rights advocacy groups to question state laws that exempt faith-healing parents from prosecution for child neglect and abuse.

A religious sect in Oregon called the Followers of Christ Church shuns modern medical treatment because members believe they are direct heirs of the Apostles and must follow a literal interpretation of the Bible. Therefore, instead of turning to current medical practice for illnesses, the Followers ask elder members of the church to pray for sick members and anoint them with oil.

This year alone, three Followers' children have died from what The Oregonian newspaper reported as treatable illnesses, including an 11-year-old boy who died in February of complications from treatable diabetes.

Prosecutors in Clackamas County did not bring charges of child neglect or abuse against the 11-year-old boy's family because of the state's law that shields faith-healing parents.

“People treated the children of religious objectors almost as throwaways,” said Terry Gustafson, Clackamas County's district attorney.

In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that the First Amendment clause concerning the free exercise of religion does not automatically extend to protecting religious beliefs and practices from laws that are intended for the welfare of society.

“A law that is neutral and of general applicability need not be justified by a compelling government interest even if the law has the incidental effect of burdening a particular religious practice,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority in Employment Div., v. Smith.

Because the Constitution permits states to create laws expanding fundamental rights – such as religious liberty – Oregon and 45 other states legislated exemptions for parents who refuse medical treatment for their children because of religious beliefs and practices.

A recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics reveals that children are dying from a lack of medical care in at least a dozen faith-healing churches in the United States. The report highlighted the Followers of Oregon and the Christian Science church.

According to the report, co-authored by the national group Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, 172 children have died nationwide in the last 20 years because parents refused medical treatment on religious grounds.

Both groups have called for Oregon and the 45 other legislatures to repeal the faith-healing exemption laws.

“Children are not mere property of their parents,” said Joel Frader, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Adults may be free to martyr themselves, but they are not free to martyr their children.”

Officials for the Church of Christ Scientist said the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment protect practices as well as beliefs.

“Christian Science has a 130-year record of healing children through spiritual practices,” spokesman Victor Westberg said. “It would be incorrect to say you can't practice your religion anymore, and spiritual healing is the cornerstone of our religion.”

Rita Swan, president of Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, said the free-exercise clause should not be used to trump the ability of the state to protect the health of children.

“The Christian Science and other faith-healing groups have a right to practice their religion to a point,” Swan said. “Religious belief shouldn't give you the right to deprive a child of needed medical care.”

This week Congress introduced legislation – the Religious Liberty Protection Act of 1998 – that would invalidate the Supreme Court's 1990 ruling on the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. The new law would require government – state and federal – to cross the highest legal standard possible in order to enforce all kinds of laws, such as child abuse and neglect laws, against religious actions or beliefs.