Aug. 8, 2000 | CLIFTON, Colo. (AP) -- The last breath of infant Billy Ray Reed came much the same as the first -- in his parents' trailer with church members surrounding him.
Without ever seeing a doctor, the 2-day-old boy died July 9 of complications from a hole in his heart. According to the coroner's report, Billy Ray's parents noticed that he was having trouble breathing and that he was turning blue. But they considered him fussy and thought he was getting better after they prayed for him, the coroner said.
The coroner said Billy Reed, 31, and his wife, Barbara, 23, denied their son medical treatment that could have saved his life. A doctor, the coroner said, would have easily recognized the baby's heart defect. Now District Attorney Frank Daniels is struggling with whether to prosecute the Reeds for choosing prayer over doctors to heal their child -- a legal dilemma that has also confounded authorities in other states. For Daniels, this could become his second case in the last year against members of the Reeds' church, the General Assembly and Church of the First Born.
"The question is, was this child unreasonably placed in this position?" Daniels said. "The statute is very gray, very unclear. It makes my decision very difficult."
The Reeds have repeatedly declined to comment or to name their attorney. "We believe in the King James version of the Bible," Barbara Reed said before the coroner's report was released. ."Either the Lord or the law will handle them," said neighbor Cassandra Price, 25.
At least seven children of Colorado members of the Church of the First Born have died since 1982, authorities say. In at least two cases, the parents were convicted.
Most recently, Josh and Mindy Glory were given 16 years of probation in February after pleading guilty to not seeking medical help for their 18-day-old son. He had contracted pneumonia and bacterial meningitis, both of which could have been treated with antibiotics, the coroner ruled. Nationwide, similar cases have involved Christian Scientists and the followers of Christ Church and other denominations.
In Pennsylvania, Dennis and Lorie Nixon of the Faith Tabernacle Congregation in Altoona are appealing their involuntary-manslaughter convictions in the death of their 16-year-old daughter, who had diabetes. Doctors said she would have lived with insulin; her family prayed over her bed, read from the Bible and coated her body with oil.
Every Wednesday and Sunday, First Born members in Mesa County, 250 miles west of Denver, roll past a peach orchard into the gravel lot outside their simple, white church with a jungle gym outside. About 50 worshippers of all ages languidly push out harmonized hymns a cappella. There is no program, no minister, no stained glass, no altar, no listed telephone number for the church.
Members trace the church's roots to at least 1702, although J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., says the larger Church of the First Born probably began in the late 19th century.
Member Leland Bruner, 71, says medical mishaps and deaths in hospitals happen just as often as they do in his congregation, if not more often. He and his wife have raised seven children who have never taken as much as aspirin.
"People like to go the best physician they can afford," he said. "We have access to the best physician here. He raised people from the dead, caused the blind to see, healed the lepers."
Rita Swan of Sioux City, Iowa, was a lifelong Christian Scientist until the death of her 16-month-old son, Matthew. After that, she said, she and her husband "dedicated our lives to turning the situation around to the benefit of children."
The group she later formed, Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, is working to repeal a federal act that allows for religious defenses in child health cases. A ban on such defenses was signed into law in Oregon last year.
Daniels, the Mesa County district attorney, unsuccessfully lobbied last year for a repeal of the Colorado law that allows for faith-healing defenses. "When I first heard about the Glory case, my first instinct was to step back," he said. We all learn early in elementary school about freedom of religion. No one wants to get involved with someone's religion.'' "There's the protection of children, freedom of the religion, and then there's the law. Where those fit together is unclear," he said.
In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled that parents could become martyrs for their religion but they did not have the right to make martyrs of their children. In the mobile home park where the Reeds live, Rick Martindale, 33, struggled to understand his neighbors' beliefs but said he was sympathetic: "I know I would never want to be prosecuted for trusting God that much."