Child neglect charges filed against a woman whose son died of untreated diabetes has put the spotlight on a church with a long history of court cases over its rejection of medical aid.
Susan M. Grady, formerly of Broken Arrow, was charged in Tulsa County District Court on Tuesday, 18 months after her 9-year-old son, Aaron, died of complications from diabetes mellitus.
She told detectives she was a member of the Church of the First Born and "believes in faith-based healing through prayer."
The Church of the First Born is one of the most frequent offenders in religion-based child medical neglect, said Dr. Seth Asser, a Rhode Island pediatrician who has published a study about children who died after their parents offered them prayer without medical help.
Asser said the Church of the First Born, well-known in Oklahoma, and Followers of Christ, an offshoot of the church that is located in the Pacific Northwest, together are responsible for more child deaths than any other group.
He estimated that one to two dozen American children die each year because their parents neglect to get them medical help, choosing instead to pray for their healing. That is about 1 percent of all child-abuse deaths.
"It's not a big number, but unlike a lot of the others, these are entirely preventable," he said.
Asser and child advocate Rita Swan worked together on a study of 172 child deaths due to what they called religion-based medical neglect and found that 140 of them would have had a 90 percent chance of survival and 18 others a 50 percent chance of survival with proper medical care.
"Most were ordinary illnesses that no one dies from - appendicitis, pneumonia ... - and many of them died slow, horrible deaths, without the benefit of (pain-relief) medicine," he said.
Swan is a former Christian Scientist who left that church after her young son died without medical attention while a Christian Science practitioner prayed for him. She founded Child Inc. in Sioux City, Iowa, to fight religion-based medical neglect.
"In Oklahoma, the Church of the First Born is the big offender," she said.
Nationwide, her organization knows of six children who died in 2009.
"It's quite haphazard. Many are unreported," she said.
"We're not against prayer," she said. "Parents have a right to pray for divine healing. But when parents see the situation is critical, they have a responsibility to seek medical help in addition to prayer."
Members of the Church of the First Born have been involved in several child-death court cases over the last three decades, including an Enid case in 1982 that motivated the Oklahoma Legislature in 1983 to limit the so-called "religious exemption." The exemption was part of an earlier law that said parents cannot be prosecuted for failure to provide medical treatment for their children, if their decision was based on their religious convictions.
Based on the exemption, an Enid couple was acquitted of manslaughter in the death of their 9-year-old son, who had a ruptured appendix.
Under Oklahoma's current law, parents can rely solely on prayer for their child's healing as long as the child is not in danger of death or permanent physical damage.
Religious groups that eschew medical help are a tiny minority in the United States.
Thomson Mathew, dean of the Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions, described them as misguided.
"They are very much in the fringe today," he said.
"In many cases, they are not theologically trained, and they teach that dependence on medicine demonstrates a lack of faith in God. That puts pressure on people," he said.
He said that worldwide, charismatic and Pentecostal Christians believe in supernatural healing as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
But the accepted theological position is that all healing is from God, who heals through both natural and supernatural means.
The merging of medicine and prayer was a major theme in the ministry of Oral Roberts, who founded the former City of Faith medical complex, Mathew noted.
Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses are two other groups that have found themselves at the intersection of religious freedom and court-ordered medical care.
Leroy Gatlin, with the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Oklahoma, said the death of Aaron Grady was tragic but has no connection to the practice of Christian Science.
He said the Christian Science Church emphasizes the healing power of prayer but leaves it up to the individual to decide the best thing to do under the circumstances.
"For me, the decision regarding the care of children should be made wisely and quickly," Gatlin said. "Certainly prayer is something I naturally turn to as my first option, but not my only option. If I'm not seeing quick and effective results from prayer, I would turn to other options.
"There's no prohibition against seeking medical assistance, ... and it's never God's will for a child to be sick or to die."
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that blood transfusions violate the biblical command not to ingest blood.
Spokesman Mark Snead said the denomination works with doctors and hospitals to use nonblood alternatives to medical care and to make it a rare instance when medical authorities seek court intervention to give blood transfusions to patients who are Jehovah's Witnesses.
Earl Weir, one of the Tulsa leaders at the Church of the First Born, said Wednesday that he doesn't preach about denying medical attention but that God's word proves that faith is all that's needed. He said church members are free to do what they want.
National church leaders did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview.