When Oregon parents treat their sick children with prayers instead of medical care under the tenets of their religion and the child is injured or dies, state law allows them to declare their religious beliefs as a legal defense to charges of homicide and child abuse.
But House Bill 2494, introduced Thursday by Rep. Bruce Starr, R-Aloha, would remove those religious shields from Oregon's criminal codes.
If approved, the new law would, among other things, hold parents criminally liable for the deaths of their children if they relied solely on prayer for healing.
"This levels the playing field for all children in Oregon," Starr said. "Regardless of their religion, parents must provide adequate medical care for their children."
The bill is the result of a debate that began last year after Clackamas County District Attorney Terry Gustafson refused to prosecute the parents of an 11-year-old Oregon City boy who died of treatable diabetes.
The dead boy's parents are member of the Followers of Christ Church, an Oregon City faith-healing sect whose 1,200 members believe that death, just as life, is God's will. Like thousands of faith-healing Christians across the nation, the Followers don't use doctors. Instead, they trust that God will heal all ills. An investigation last year by The Oregonian found that more than 70 Followers of Christ children have died since the mid-1950s, many from treatable illnesses. This is perhaps the largest cluster of faith-healing deaths ever documented, experts have said.
Gustafson said Oregon's homicide statutes were so confusing that faith-healing parents were denied due-process rights if brought to trial. Attorney General Hardy Myers and most other Oregon prosecutors disagreed with Gustafson. But many, including Myers, have said they would support legislation to clarify parents' rights and responsibilities. Peter Cogswell, Myers' spokesman, said Thursday that Myers had not taken a position on Starr's bill.
The bill eliminates the shield laws from all Oregon's statutes, including murder by abuse, first- and second-degree manslaughter, criminal mistreatment and criminal nonsupport.
Only six states, including Oregon, allow such sweeping immunity for faith-healing parents whose children die without treatment, although more than 40 states include some kind of religious shields in their criminal, civil and juvenile codes.
Not only are Oregon's laws some of the weakest in protecting children of faith healers, but legislative records over the years show that lawmakers wrote the laws to suit the Christian Science Church. Christian Scientists, the nation's largest religious group favoring spiritual healing methods, has been the chief defender of such religious shields nationwide. Oregon church members pushed through changes in 1995 and 1997 that strengthened parents' rights to use prayers in lieu of medical care, ironically as prosecutors were seeking stiffer sentences for child killers. The church's Oregon lobbyist, Bruce Fitzwater, said he will pay close attention to the debate, but said he couldn't comment Thursday because he hadn't yet seen the bill.
Despite the potential opposition, Starr said he believes the bill will pass this session with few problems. It has bipartisan support, and House Speaker Lynn Snodgrass, R-Boring, and Senate Minority Leader Kate Brown, D-Portland, are the chief co-sponsors. But Starr reluctantly acknowledges that the bill could get hung up in this chiefly conservative assembly in a debate over religious freedom.
"I hope that we will instead focus on children who are dying for a lack of medical care," he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon is considering whether to take a stand on the issue, after correspondence from one of its members last year, said David Fidanque, the group's Oregon lobbyist. Historically, the ACLU has favored a state's right to intervene in known cases where children are in danger but has been against prosecuting parents after a child dies.
"We're sympathetic to the concerns of people like the Christian Scientists whose religious beliefs prohibit them from seeking medical care," he said. "Prosecuting them later is not going to change their beliefs." Rita Swan, president of Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, based in Sioux City, Iowa, said Starr's bill is the national group's top priority. A former Christian Scientist whose son died of spinal meningitis, Swan has waged a battle against religious shields both on the state and federal levels.
"Because of the large number of children who have died in Oregon, we think it's extremely important for this bill to be passed this year," Swan said.
Two of the Oregon children who died were Russ Briggs' sons. The Oregon City resident was raised in the Followers of Christ Church and practiced its faith-healing doctrines into adulthood. His first two sons died shortly after birth of what he believes were preventable medical problems. He left the church years later and is now a member of Swan's group.
After appearing in The Oregonian, in Time magazine and on ABC's "20/20," Briggs said he is happy that something is finally being done to help the Followers' children. Each day that passes is another that children are at risk, he said.
"It just needed to be done to help the children to come," he said. "You can't go backward in time. The ones that need protecting are the ones there now."