Oregon weakens defenses for parents who rely on faith to heal their children

Tuesday, August 24, 1999

Some of Oregon's most protective laws shielding parents who refuse medical care for their children for religious reasons have been scaled back.

After months of debate, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber in mid-August signed a compromise bill that does not allow parents to raise their religious beliefs as a defense against criminal charges of second-degree manslaughter and mistreatment when they fail to seek medical treatment for their children.

A bill passed by the Oregon House in May had struck the faith-healing defense from all criminal charges, including murder and first-degree manslaughter.

The state Senate then produced a compromise bill that revived some of the faith-healing exemptions at the urging of local religious organizations including Christian Scientists and Followers of Christ Church, whose members advocate prayer instead of modern medicine. The churches argued that the state must not infringe on the medical practices of religious groups.

Neither side of the debate on exempting religious observers from the state's criminal laws was exactly happy with the Senate bill that is now law.

Proponents for scrapping all state defenses for faith-healing parents, including a nonprofit group called Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, argued that religious-liberty rights should not shield parents from punishment for neglecting their children. After the passage of the Senate's version, Rita Swan, president of the group, derided the bill as harmful to children.

Yet some supporters of strong parental defenses for spiritual healing have criticized the new laws as targeting religious believers. Upon signing the bill, Kitzhaber said it was not the intent of state lawmakers to penalize church members for their belief in the power of prayer.

Although the federal government is not constitutionally mandated to accommodate religious believers, states are free to create exemptions from an array of laws, such as child abuse and criminal neglect, for religious observers.

Bruce Fitzwater, chair of the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Oregon, had argued before state lawmakers that Christian Science health care was misunderstood and that the state should accommodate those seeking to develop their spiritual lives.

“Prayer in Christian Science brings deep recognition of God's love and presence to every aspect of life,” Fitzwater wrote in a commentary that appeared in The Oregonian. “In the case of an ill child, Christian Science unburdens the parents of fear, thereby uplifting the entire atmosphere surrounding the child, and speeding healing.”