Oregon House votes to drop most protections for faith-healing parents

Monday, May 17, 1999

Responding to concerns from child welfare groups, Oregon's House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would invalidate state laws protecting faith-healing parents from prosecution for murder and manslaughter if children in their care die of treatable illnesses.

The bill introduced by Republican state Rep. Bruce Starr and co-sponsored by the House's top Democrat would strike from state law the “spiritual treatment defense to murder, kidnapping, criminal mistreatment and criminal nonsupport.”

The House approved a form of the bill 38-21 last week. The bill would leave intact defenses for faith-healing parents to charges of criminal nonsupport and several lesser child-welfare laws. The Senate's Republican minority leader also is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The call to drop the faith-healing exemptions was prompted by a report last year in The (Portland) Oregonian that several children who attended a small fundamentalist church called the Followers of Christ had died of treatable illnesses. Members of the church adhere to biblical teachings, which they say direct them to pray for the sick and anoint them with oil. Oregon law currently grants a defense to charges of neglect, abuse and several forms of homicide to parents or guardians who refuse medical treatment for their children because of religious beliefs.

A national nonprofit group that opposes laws that shield faith-healing parents has worked closely with Oregon lawmakers and is scheduled to meet with Senate staffers on May 21 to urge passage of the bill.

Rita Swan, president of Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, said the House's passage of the bill “was a big step forward for Oregon,” but that she was disappointed that the bill left intact other faith-healing exemptions.

“We don't understand why the House left some protections for faith-healing parents, such as reporting of neglect to child services,” Swan said. “The House also passed a provision that makes faith-healing parents liable for injuries that don't cause death, but only for children up to the age of 15. We think that is unfortunate to say that parents of 16- and 17-year-olds don't have to provide medical care for them.”

Lawmakers opposed to any changes to existing law on faith-healing argued before the House vote that parents should be allowed to practice their religious beliefs without state interference. Republican Rep. Ron Sunseri said that such parents were not “malicious murderers,” but were simply “choosing to pray” when their children became sick.

Swan said such religious practices were “hurting kids” and should not be accommodated by the government.

“The life of the child takes precedence over parents rights to practice religions,” Swan said. “Parents should and have every right to practice their religion, until that practice harms in an objective way the health and welfare of the child.”