Parents ask Florida court to dismiss child-abuse charges

Tuesday, October 27, 1998

A Florida couple facing criminal charges in the death of their one-month-old daughter recently asked a state judge to dismiss them, claiming their religious beliefs prevented them from seeking medical treatment.


In 1996, Robert and Rachael Aitcheson, members of a small religious group called the Bible Readers Fellowship in Palm Bay, were questioned by local police for failing to report the death of their daughter, Alexus. Police learned of the death after being told of a flier the Aitchesons created about their daughter's death. According to the flier, the baby choked on her own vomit and died hours later. Alexus was also said to have been cremated during a ceremony attended by some of the religious group's members.


Palm Bay police investigated the couple and then charged them with child abuse, abusing a dead body and failing to report a death. The St. Petersburg Times reported last week that the couple's trial was to begin this week.


Rita Swan, president of Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, a national nonprofit group that advocates laws protecting children from what it calls abusive religious and cultural practices, said the trial had been delayed by the Aitchesons' motion.


Calls made to James Contose, the Aitchesons' attorney, were not returned.


Police learned of the Aitchesons' religious beliefs during their investigation. According to the police, the Aitchesons and other members want little to do with government and believe God is more powerful than modern medicine. The St. Petersburg Times reported that Robert Aitcheson told police that he and his wife avoided using doctors because they believed doctors were sorcerers.


Swan said the police were also investigating another incident involving members of the religious group.


In late September, the 2-year-old son of Wylie and Kelly Johnson died seven hours after being stung 432 times by a swarm of yellow jackets. The Johnsons, also members of the religious group that equates medicine with sorcery, were acquitted earlier this year of charges that they withheld information from authorities about he death of the Aitchesons' daughter.


When Palm Bay police questioned Wylie Johnson about Alexus Aitcheson, he defended the parents' actions.


“Jesus Christ always, when people came to him, he healed them,” Wylie Johnson told police, according to the St. Petersburg Times. “He never sent them to anyone, let alone a doctor. My experience has been that when I go to God first, I don't end up needing a doctor.”


No additional charges have been brought against the Johnsons.


Citing federal court cases, Swan said the religious-liberty rights of parents do not trump the health and safety concerns of children.


The U.S. Supreme Court in 1944 ruled that a Jehovah's Witness couple could not subject their children to harm on the grounds of religious freedom.


“The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death,” Justice Wiley Rutledge wrote for the majority in Prince v. Massachusetts. It was sufficient to note, Rutledge continued, that “the state has a wide range of power for limiting parental freedom and authority in things affecting the child's welfare; and that this includes, to some extent, matters of conscience and religious conviction.”


Despite the case law, Swan said a majority of states had created religious exemptions allowing parents to withhold some medical care from children.


Last week a state judge in Wisconsin ordered a Muslim boy be put in state custody after ruling that the father's physical punishment of the boy was not protected by his freedom of religion.


The state appeals court ruled that the father could not show that his Islamic faith required the use of physical punishment and that his views on such punishment were rooted in a personal philosophy, not faith.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.