Shield-law bills face easy win in House

The two measures aim to do away with criminal exemptions for parents who treat children only with prayer

The Oregonian/March 5, 1999
By Mark Larabee

Two bills that would require faith-healing parents in Oregon to seek medical care for their sick or injured children or risk criminal charges seem virtually assured of easy passage in the House.

The House Judiciary Committee Criminal Law took the first testimony Thursday on proposals by Reps. Bruce Starr, R-Aloha, and Kathy Lowe, D-Milwaukie, that would eliminate spiritual-healing exemptions throughout the state's criminal codes.

Oregon's criminal laws now offer faith healers immunity from prosecution on charges of homicide, manslaughter, child abuse and neglect in cases where children treated solely with prayer are seriously injured or die.

"This is a form of child abuse and neglect that needs to be addressed," said Oregon State Medical Examiner Larry Lewman. "The suffering and unnecessary deaths of these children bothers me. These children have no say in the matter. This is not a religious issue."

Both House Bill 2494 by Starr and House Bill 2596 by Lowe would establish a legal standard requiring Oregonians to seek necessary medical care for seriously sick or injured children or dependent adults. Few political battles about the bills are expected either in committee or the full House. There is strong bipartisan support for the statute revisions after a long legal debate last year about whether a faith-healing couple in Oregon City could have been brought to trial on homicide charges in the death of their son. Both bills also have wide backing from law enforcement officers, medical professionals, social workers and child advocates.

Starr said he thought the committee was headed for a unanimous vote.

Starr, Lowe and criminal law committee Chairman Kevin Mannix, R-Salem, agreed that they would work out subtle differences between the two measures and send one consolidated bill to the full House. Lowe's bill simply offers additional language spelling out that the change will not affect the religious choices of competent adults. The committee vote could occur as early as today.

The debate about the law arose after the death of 11-year-old Bo Phillips, an Oregon City boy who died in February 1998 after suffering for days from painful complications from diabetes. His parents, members of the Followers of Christ Church, treated him only with prayers.

Members of the 1,200-member church profess a belief of sole reliance on prayer, not doctors, though some adults have secretly sought medical help for their own illnesses, ex-members said.

Lewman said Bo was one of the more than 70 children buried in the Followers of Christ cemetery outside Oregon City. Many of them could have been saved with basic medical care, he said.

An investigation by The Oregonian last summer found that lawmakers and prosecutors knew about preventable deaths and injuries of Followers' children as early as the late 1960s but that no one ever tried to hold a parent legally responsible. And until 1985, state investigations of child deaths were incomplete or virtually nonexistent, as prosecutors at that time dismissed the deaths as a tragic consequence of the parents' religious freedom, The Oregonian found.

In the Phillips case, Clackamas County District Attorney Terry Gustafson declined to prosecute, citing a legal loophole that she said denied the boy's parents their right to due process. Although many disagreed with Gustafson's legal interpretation, the case raised awareness that Oregon law, if not confusing, created a legal conflict between a child's basic right to life and a parent's religious freedom.

Starr said the two bills before the Legislature struck a delicate and appropriate balance between the two interests.

"When, because of religious beliefs, parents refuse to intercede in life-threatening situations of their child, it is the right of the state to intervene in order to prevent the death of that child," he said.

There was no testimony from members of the Followers of Christ Church. Most who testified favored the bills, though there was limited testimony from Christian Scientists who warned that eliminating the so-called spiritual defense from Oregon's homicide statutes and other areas of the law would unfairly impose upon their religious rights.

Although faith healing is practiced to varying degrees by thousands of Christians across the nation and the world, Christian Scientists are the largest religious group that favors the healing-through-prayer method of care. There are 30 Christian Science churches in Oregon. Bruce Fitzwater, a Christian Science caregiver from Portland and the church's Oregon lobbyist, said members of his church made responsible choices about the care they gave their children and that the church made it clear that choices were for parents to make. Many members have said in past interviews that the church does not frown upon those who seek medical care if Christian Science care practices of praying and "getting closer to God" do not seem to be working.

While agreeing that something should be done to prevent deaths like those in Oregon City, Fitzwater said Christian Scientists shouldn't suffer the emotional wrath caused by those tragedies. "I feel the weight of all this condemnation," he said, "and yet we're not talking about Christian Science."

Fitzwater noted that Attorney General Hardy Myers believed that parents could be charged under the criminally negligent homicide statute, which does not include a legal defense for faith healers.

There was some debate Thursday on whether the provisions of the bills crossed a delicate line and infringed upon religious freedom. Rep. Ron Sunseri, R-Gresham, said he was struggling over whether the bills, if passed, would affect fervent believers of faith healing whose strong convictions probably wouldn't change.

Rita Swan, a former Christian Scientist and president of the national child-advocacy group Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, said the beliefs are often born of fear that's taught by the church. But churches also teach their members to obey the law, she said.


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