Oregon lawmakers to reconsider regulations that protect faith-healing parents

Wednesday, January 27, 1999

A bipartisan group of legislators has taken the first step to overturn Oregon laws that protect faith-healing parents from prosecution for homicide, child abuse and neglect when their children die from lack of medical treatment.

Last year members of the Followers of Christ Church, a fundamentalist group that refuses medical care, drew attention from The Oregonian after an 11-year-old member died from complications of treatable diabetes. The newspaper undertook an extensive investigation and reported in June that the small church, also with members in Oklahoma and Idaho, had lost many children to ailments that probably could have been cured with medical treatment.

Instead of seeking medical care, members of the church strictly adhere to biblical instruction, which they maintain directs them to pray for the sick and anoint them with oil.

The parents of the 11-year-old boy were not prosecuted for any crime because Oregon law provides exemptions from criminal prosecution for religious persons. Specifically, it 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.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in 1990 that the First Amendment's free exercise of religion right is not absolute and that laws applying fairly to everyone typically would be upheld in the face of religious-liberty infringement charges, it is nonetheless commonly understood that the Constitution allows states to grant greater protections of their citizens' fundamental rights.

Oregon and at least six other states have created statutory shields to protect faith-healing parents from prosecution for a wide array of civil and criminal crimes.

A bill introduced late last week by Republican state Rep. Bruce Starr would strike from the law the “spiritual treatment defense to murder, kidnapping, criminal mistreatment and criminal nonsupport.” The bill is co-sponsored by the House's majority leader, a Democrat, and the Senate's minority leader, a Republican.

A national nonprofit group that opposes government laws shielding faith-healing parents is working closely with the sponsors of the Oregon bill to ensure its passage.

“We don't believe this bill compromises the parents' rights to religious beliefs,” Rita Swan, president of Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, said. “The state has no authority to tell parents what [to] believe, but this bill would require all parents to obtain medical care for their sick children when the illness reaches a threshold of seriousness that would alert any reasonable parent.”

The bill, however, is likely to attract concern from Christian Scientists, who believe not in medical science but in healing through prayer. Members of the church have lobbied nationwide for laws protecting its members from unnecessary government interference with their religious practices. Oregon Christian Scientists supported the effort to enact and strengthen that state's faith-healing shield laws.

Bruce Fitzwater, director of Christian Science Committee on Publication for Oregon, wrote recently in guest column in The Oregonian that members of his religious group seek, “within law, reasonable accommodation allowing for responsible spiritual healing, and they desire such accommodation for their fellow citizens, many of whom today are exploring the role of spirituality in their lives and health.”

Whether the Followers of Christ Church would oppose the bill is yet to be seen. Members refuse to talk to media.

Swan said Oregon's compelling interest in protecting children should lawfully override the parents' religious beliefs.

“Our society has forever embraced the concept that you have freedom to believe your religion and that you should have the right to teach it to your children,” Swan said. She added, however, that the right is not absolute. “Courts have ruled throughout the 20th century that parents don't have a First Amendment right to abuse their children, to deprive their children of the necessities of life,” she said.