Oregon Senate committee restores most protections for faith-healing parents

Wednesday, July 7, 1999

A bipartisan effort in the Oregon Legislature to curtail state laws that
protect faith-healing parents from various criminal prosecutions has run into
opposition in the state Senate.

In May the Oregon House passed a bill, introduced by a Republican and
supported by the House's top Democrat, that removed from state law the
“spiritual treatment defense” for parents who try to heal their children solely
by prayer and are charged with murder, manslaughter, child abuse or neglect.

The bill was prompted in part by concerns over recent deaths of children who
attended a small fundamentalist church called the Followers of Christ. The
followers eschew modern medicine in favor of biblical teachings, which they say
direct them to pray for the sick and anoint them with oil.

Last week, however, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed its version of the
bill, restoring most of the spiritual defenses the House bill had removed. The
committee changed the bill after presiding over hearings that lasted more than
three hours and were dominated by testimony from Christian Scientists. Bruce
Fitzwater, director of the Christian Science Committee on Publication for
Oregon, argued before the Senate committee that the First Amendment protects
religious practices of faith-healing parents.

Rita Swan, president of Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, said that the committee's alterations to the bill were a “travesty.” Swan's group had worked closely with sponsors of the House version, calling the state's current faith-healing exemptions some of the worst in the nation.

“We believe religious freedom should be limited so that it does not harm the
welfare of children,” she said. “We think the Senate committee's changes are
pretty poor. The bill restores Oregon's religious exemptions to murder and
first-degree manslaughter for parents who give care of treatment solely by
spiritual means pursuant to their religious beliefs.”

State Sen. Kate Brown lauded the committee's change as a “more practical and
reasonable” approach than the House's version. The Senate version has yet to be
voted on by the full Senate. If it passes, the two bills would have to be
reconciled in a joint House-Senate conference committee before being sent to the

The (Portland) Oregonian, which has reported on several deaths of
children in faith-healing families, opined on July 2 that the “legislators
should put first things first: protect those who can't defend

(Editor's note: The Oregon Senate on July 12 endorsed its version of the bill designed to protect sick children whose parents choose to treat them only with prayer. The House and Senate versions are now expected to go to a joint conference committee, where the differences may be hammered out.)