13 Jan 2009

Debate over faith as health care begins in Tennessee courtroom

Knoxville News Sentinel
January 13, 2009

by Jamie Satterfield

LOUDON - A mother accused of neglecting her dying daughter by turning to prayer instead of medicine took to the witness stand Monday clutching her defense in her hands.
"I decided to turn to Jesus Christ, my lord and savior, for her healing, believing in this word," Jacqueline Crank testified as she held up the Bible she brought with her to Loudon County Criminal Court.
She expects to carry that same Bible all the way to the state Supreme Court, where nearly everyone involved in this landmark Tennessee case of prayer versus medicine agrees it will wind up.
Crank and her two children, including 15-year-old Jessica Crank, were living communal style with Jessica's self-professed "spiritual father," Ariel Ben Sherman, and other members of a branch of the Universal Life Church in Loudon in May 2002 when Crank took her daughter to a clinic because the girl had a large tumor on her shoulder.
Clinic personnel advised Crank to take her daughter to the University of Tennessee Medical Center. She didn't. Jessica later died from a rare form of bone cancer known as Ewing sarcoma.
Crank and Sherman wound up charged. Much legal wrangling followed. The case now has been whittled down to its core issue: Is Tennessee's law allowing parents to put their faith - and their children's health - in God's hands too vague to be valid?
Defense attorney Gregory P. Isaacs and Sherman's attorneys, Donald A. Bosch and Ann Short-Bowers, contend the law is silent on when a parent relying on faith can be held criminally responsible for that decision.
"Our state does not delineate whether you can try to heal your child of the common cold through prayer alone but you cannot try to heal your child of Ewing sarcoma through prayer," Isaacs argued.
Assistant District Attorney General Frank Harvey tried to steer the argument toward wording in the law that allows parents to follow the tenets of a "recognized" church headed by a "duly accredited practitioner."
Harvey contends Sherman is not a minister but a cult leader, an allegation Sherman has faced for decades in a host of states where he has set up house with followers but has steadfastly denied.
"The religion in question is Christianity," Bosch countered.
Isaacs echoed that argument with a reference to Christ and his disciples.
"I wonder if 12 people having supper with someone they consider to be the messiah who were not part of the establishment, the Sanhedrin, would that be considered a cult?" he said.
Judge Eugene Eblen declined Monday to dismiss the charges but is allowing an emergency appeal to the state Court of Criminal Appeals. In his view, it will take a decision from the state's highest court to determine whether Crank and Sherman can be tried under Tennessee law.
The pair now live in South Carolina with Crank's teenage son and at least four of Sherman's parishioners.
Jamie Satterfield may be reached at 865-342-6308.
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