Faith Healing and the Law

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), February 28, 2011 | Go to article overview

Faith Healing and the Law


Byline: The Register-Guard

Over the past 30 years, more than 20 children whose parents belong to the Followers of Christ church in Oregon City have died from treatable medical conditions. Yet this state remains one of the few in the nation where the criminal statutes provide special legal protection for parents who treat their seriously ill children with faith healing instead of providing medical care.

Spurred by the deaths of three Followers children in the past four years, all without medical intervention, Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, has introduced legislation that would eliminate those legal protections and make clear that all parents, regardless of their religious convictions, have a legal responsibility to provide seriously ill children with medical care.

Lawmakers should approve House Bill 2721, which would reduce the avoidable deaths that can result when parents insist on treating their children's life-threatening illnesses exclusively with prayer.

The bill would remove spiritual treatment as a defense against homicide charges involving children and subject parents to mandatory sentencing under Oregon's Measure 11. (It would leave in place a religious exemption for adults who fail to provide medical care for spouses or other adults.)

In 1995, state lawmakers added the religious-defense exemption to Oregon's homicide statutes at the request of the Christian Science Church. The concept, which had strong appeal in a state with an emerging tradition of religious tolerance, was to provide immunity from prosecution for parents who could prove to a judge or jury that their religious beliefs guided their decision not to seek medical treatment for their children.

Two years later, lawmakers added faith exemptions to the state's first- and second-degree manslaughter statutes.

After a high-profile 1998 case in which Clackamas County authorities declined to prosecute Followers of Christ members whose 11-year-old son died of untreated diabetes, the Legislature modified some of those legal protections, giving judges the authority to give lighter sentences to faith-healing parents. …

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