Couple loses challenge on blood test law

Associated Press/September 12, 2006
By Kevin O'Hanlon

Lincoln, Nebraska -- A federal judge has refused to throw out Nebraska's one-of-a-kind newborn blood screening law. Ray and Louise Spiering of Saunders County filed a lawsuit challenging the law in 2004, arguing that the mandatory blood test would violate a tenet of their religious beliefs as members of the Church of Scientology.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf said the law is constitutional.

The blood screening has been standard practice in Nebraska since 1967. Health officials say the test, which consists of pricking an infant's heel to draw five drops of blood, is necessary to prevent several metabolic diseases that can cause severe mental retardation or death if left undetected.

Officials say those diseases put a strain on families and on taxpayers who often must pay for long-term care of the disabled.

Scientologists believe, however, that babies are best served with seven days of silence after birth.

All 50 states have newborn screening statutes.

Nebraska, Montana, Michigan and South Dakota are the only states that do not allow an exemption for parents who oppose the test for reasons such as religious beliefs.

Nebraska is the only state that allows a court to force parents to comply with the law.

In 2004, Kopf granted the Spierings' request for a temporary order restraining the state from taking their newborn's blood within 48 hours of birth.

Kopf instructed the couple to have the test as soon as possible after the seventh day.

In Tuesday's ruling, Kopf said "Nebraska's program is rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest."

"It is true that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the `fundamental right' of parents to make decisions as to the care, custody and control of their children," Kopf said. "But it is equally true that a state is not without constitutional control over parental discretion in dealing with children when their physical or mental health is jeopardized."

He also noted that "Nebraska's program, unlike the situation in some other states, allows no exemptions for religious reasons.

"Whether that is a wise policy, I do not know," he said. "My job as a federal judge ... does not allow me to second-guess the politically accountable branches of Nebraska's government on this very sensitive and important issue."

Lawyers for each side did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In 2003, the Nebraska Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge by Josue and Mary Anaya of Omaha.

The Anayas, who are fundamental Christians, argued that compelling the test violated their religious beliefs. They cited the Bible, saying "the life of the flesh is in the blood" in refusing to have the baby tested. The Anayas said they believed that taking a baby's blood could shorten its life.

The high court agreed with Douglas County District Judge Patricia Lamberty, who said states have a "compelling governmental interest" in preventing diseases.

She said the law "does not unlawfully burden the Anayas' right to freely exercise their religion, nor does it unlawfully burden their parental rights."

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