The Oregonian - August 2, 2009
Worthington trial: Faith healing and double standards
by Susan Nielsen, The Oregonian columnist
Sunday's column: Oregon can't bless faith-based abuse
Carl Worthington of Oregon City got a 60-day jail sentence Friday for letting his daughter suffer and die in the name of religion. His wife Raylene got a free pass for the same crime, the legal equivalent of a sympathetic squeeze on the shoulder.
The trial's over. What's done is done. All we can do, in honor of this dead child, is to strip away the remaining faith-healing exemptions in our criminal laws and sentencing rules. Oregon should hold all parents to the same standard, rather than maintain a confusing two-tier system that gives special treatment to certain parents and fewer protections to certain children.
We also should keep asking the questions that bedevil juries in faith-healing cases:
Is it ever OK to seriously harm your child in the name of religion? If so, which religion?
Other states that struggle with these questions tend to realize that holding citizens to different criminal standards, based on their religious beliefs rather than their conduct, leads to messy laws, messy trials, unhappy juries and more dead kids.
The Worthingtons, who shun modern medicine in favor of faith healing, stood trial last month on charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminal mistreatment for the 2008 death of their 15-month-old daughter, Ava. Prosecutors said the couple let the child die of pneumonia and a blood infection, complicated by an untreated cyst on her neck that affected her breathing.
After a week of deliberations, the jury cleared the mother of both charges and found the father, the self-described head of household, guilty of the lesser charge. A Clackamas County judge sentenced Carl Worthington on Friday to 60 days in jail and five years of probation, plus medical checkups for his surviving daughter and baby-to-be.
There's no point in second-guessing the jury. They had better access to testimony and evidence than the rest of us. However, this trial should inspire Oregon to look outside its borders and consider the following:
First, other states aren't so deferential to parents who withhold lifesaving medical care and offer prayer instead. A woman in Wisconsin who let her daughter slowly die of untreated diabetes was convicted of homicide this spring and faces up to 25 years in prison. Her husband is on trial now for the same offense. [up-date by Perry Bulwer: the father has now also been found guilty of reckless homicide]
Second, it's hard to define what qualifies as "religion." In a few recent cases of fatal medical neglect, parents claimed a religious defense because they were diligently following some spiritual advice they found on the Internet.
Third, other states have gotten into trouble for maintaining an Oregon-style patchwork that allows a religious defense in some circumstances but not in others. Appeals courts tend to throw out convictions when they notice the absurdity of punishing the same behavior that is singled out elsewhere for protection.
The Supreme Court correctly holds that the state must give great deference to parents. The ability to raise children according to one's beliefs and direct their medical care is a matter of fundamental liberty, deeply rooted in our laws and culture.
Yet these rights are not absolute. Beliefs are held sacred but conduct is not, and the government can intervene if parents endanger their children. As the high court famously ruled more than 60 years ago, "Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children."
Oregon lawmakers refined the state's faith-healing laws a decade ago in response to evidence of high child mortality rates within the Worthingtons' church. The changes enabled prosecutors to try the Worthington case and secure a modest conviction. However, the mixed messages surrounding faith healing make the impartial administration of justice next to impossible.
That's not fair to anyone.
Not to the community at large.
Not to the parents involved.
Not to the children whose lives we choose, in the name of religion, to value at a discount.
-- Associate editor Susan Nielsen, The Oregonian;
This article was found at: