• Can Faith Healing Be A Crime? - Part I
  • December 13, 2009
  • Law Firm: Holland & Hart LLP - Denver Office
  • 2009 is shaping up to be a watershed year for the prosecution of parents who have undertaken faith healing in lieu of conventional medical or surgical treatment for children with life threatening illnesses or conditions. On Monday, January 26, 2009,Clakamas County in the State of Oregon will be trying Carl Brent Worthington and Raylene Marie Worthington, for manslaughter and criminal mistreatment, related to their failure to obtain medical treatment for their 15 month old daughter Ava who died of bronchial pneumonia and various blood infections.

    Later in June, Clakamas County will seek to convict Jeffry Dean Beagley and Marie Rae Beagley for criminal negligence in the death of their son Neal Jeffry Beagley 17, from complications of a urinary tract blockage. Pressure for prosecution has been mounting since 1998 when a significant number of bodies of young children belonging to a religious group calling themselves Followers of Christ Church were identified in a cemetery outside of Oregon City.The children apparently died without medical intervention.

    In Wisconsin, Leiloni Neumann and Dale Neumann will be separately tried in May and June in Marathon County for Reckless endangerment in the death of their 11 year old daughter Kara who died of diabetic ketoacidosis after her diabetes went undiagnosed and untreated in favor of prayer.

    " All of the defendants are asserting the 1st Amendment right of freedom in the exercise of religion as a cornerstone of their defenses. Absent complications from arcane state statutes protecting faith healing and jury nullification, they they will likely loose if the prosecution can establish that they were aware of the life threatening condition of their children and their rejection of medical treatment for prayer."

    Among the spiritual principles of many of religious people who rely on faith healing in lieu of medicine, is the concept of living according to Christ's example. One prominent piaster adherent says "Jesus never sent anyone to a doctor or a hospital." Jesus, by most accounts, never had any children. He therefore never watched his own young children die of curable conditions while he stood by anointing them with oil.

    Many faith healing adherents rely on the bible for guidance in this matter.

    "Is any sick among you?  Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up."

    James 5:14.

    The free exercise of religious belief is, of course, an absolute right guaranteed by the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution. The free exercise of religious conduct is not. A state may regulate dangerous conduct regardless of religious content. Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S.  296 (1940). In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld a Massachusetts statute used to prevent a Jehovah's Witness couple from using a minor child to peddle religious material on a public street.The Court, in Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), addressed the larger principle of the 1st Amendment and conflicts with the State's police power.

    "Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow that they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice themselves."

    In other words, there are no individual rights of religious practice that extend to exposing others, even your own family members, to risk of harm. Under the Constitution, religious rights end at another's nose. Under our laws, children are not property to be sacrificed on the alter of belief. In a nation of laws and ordered liberty, Abraham and Issac notwithstanding, we cannot kill our children on the strength of what we perceive to be a command from God. Nor can we stand by and watch them die until they are old enough to make that decision for themselves.