31 Oct 2010

Oregon Faith Healing Death Case Headed To Court

KPTV Fox12 - Portland June 15, 2009

PORTLAND, Ore. -- A couple charged with manslaughter claim they were within their constitutional rights when they decided to pray for their 15-month old daughter rather than take her to a doctor to treat her pneumonia.

But legal experts said they think Carl and Raylene Worthington will likely have a difficult time arguing freedom of religion over the state's duty to protect children from harm.

A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for Monday in the case against the Worthingtons, whose toddler, Ava, died in March 2008. The state medical examiner said Ava could have easily been treated with antibiotics.

The trial, scheduled to start June 23, comes about a decade after the Oregon Legislature amended state law to restrict an exemption for faith healing and to bar arguments that religious beliefs prevent seeking medical help.

The revision in state law came in response to an investigation into a series of deaths of children whose parents belonged to the church and suffered from untreated illnesses that were curable.

A small church cemetery is lined with the graves of dozens of children -- suggesting an extraordinary increase over the average death rate for children in the United States, according to Dr. Seth Asser, a Boston pediatrician who has studied the practices of faith healing groups for years.

He said such deaths are far more common among fringe groups with small congregations that stand apart from mainstream churches.

The deaths also typically involve young children because "by the time kids are school age, there are others involved in their lives -- friends, neighbors, family, teachers that may be aware if there's a serious issue," Asser said.

Prosecutors have declined comment on the case and the attorney for the Worthingtons, John Neidig, was unavailable on Friday.

The judge in the case, Clackamas County Circuit Judge Steven Mauer, said at a hearing in January that "I do not feel we are on unplowed legal ground" before he rejected a defense motion to dismiss the charges.

A number of legal experts agree the law is fairly well settled when it comes to requiring medical treatment for children.

"Faith healing practitioners and individuals who believe in faith healing have had a lot more difficult time, if not almost impossible time" defending themselves in the deaths of children, said Steven Green, a Willamette University law professor.

Green, the former general counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the legal standard for state intervention in medical care of children had been a "compelling" interest in protecting their health and welfare.

He said a number of cases and some key Supreme Court rulings have reduced the threshold for intervention since the early 1990s.

"And even when the standard was higher, faith healers were not winning these cases," Green said.

Carter Snead, a Notre Dame law professor and adviser to the President's Council on Bioethics, said judges have also tried to strike a balance over the years between parental rights and faith healing.

"It's a very big deal when the state overrides the parents -- but I completely agree with those who say the state is in the right here," Snead said.

Faith Healing Death Case Headed To Court

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