Oregon lawmakers appear ready to end legal protections for faith-healing parents

Oregon lawmakers will take the first step today toward ending legal protections for parents who rely solely on faith to treat their dying children, The Oregonian reports:

The bill targets the Followers of Christ, an Oregon City church with a long history of children dying from treatable medical conditions. A previous crackdown restricted but did not eliminate religious immunity from state criminal statutes.

Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, said deaths of three Followers children in recent years — all without medical intervention — prompted her to introduce the bill. “Such gross and unnecessary neglect cannot be allowed, even if the parents are well-meaning,” Tomei said.

The legislation appears primed for approval. It has wide support both political parties, prosecutors, medical providers and child-protection groups, and there is no organized opposition. […]

House Bill 2721 would remove spiritual treatment as a defense for all homicide charges. Moreover, if found guilty, parents would be subject to mandatory sentencing under Oregon’s Measure 11.

Legislators and prosecutors hope the threat of long prison sentences will cause church members to reconsider their tradition of rejecting medical treatment in favor of faith healing.

“This will level the playing field so all parents will be operating under the same rules,” said Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote. “It’s going to make it easier to hold parents accountable who don’t protect their children.”

The full text of House Bill 2721 can be read online.

Theologically, the Followers of Christ church is a cult of Christianity. It’s extreme stance on faith healing is unbiblical, and places the church outside the boundaries of the Christian faith. Sociologically the church should also be considered a destructive cult, as its practices are harmful to its followers and/or their dependents.

The Oregonian provides the following timeline regarding ‘faith healing’ legislation in Oregon:

1995: Lobbied by the Christian Science Church, legislators introduce a religious defense to Oregon’s homicide statutes, protecting parents who try to heal their children solely with prayer and faith-healing rituals. Parents who could prove to a judge or jury that faith governed their actions become immune from criminal liability, just as others can assert a claim of self-defense or extreme emotional disturbance.

1997: Again at the behest of Christian Scientists, Oregon legislators add religious shields to the state’s first- and second-degree manslaughter statutes.

1998: Citing legal immunities for faith-healers, Clackamas County District Attorney Terry Gustafson declines to prosecute Followers of Christ church members whose 11-year-old son, Bo Phillips, died from untreated diabetes. As he suffered for days, his parents withheld medical treatment in favor of prayer. The boy’s death sparks a statewide controversy and calls for changes in Oregon law.

1999: After months of debate, legislators reform Oregon’s faith-healing laws, eliminating religious protections in cases of first- and second-degree criminal mistreatment and second-degree manslaughter. In a compromise with advocates of religious freedom and parental rights, legislators also approve a faith-healing exemption to mandatory minimum sentences.

2009: Raylene and Carl Brent Worthington of Oregon City become the first parents prosecuted under the 1999 reforms after their 15-month-old daughter dies from untreated bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection. A Clackamas County jury acquits the mother and convicts the father on a single count of criminal mistreatment. Since then, charges have been brought against several more Followers, including Raylene Worthington’s parents, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley, who were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the death of their teenage son.

2011: Lawmakers consider eliminating the last remnants of Oregon’s religious-defense statutes.

Note: the Christian Science Church — not affiliated with Followers of Christ church, and itself also considered to be a cult of Christianity — has its own history of children dying as a direct result of the church’s beliefs regarding faith healing. The Christian Science Church actively lobbies on behalf of its beliefs.

The Oregonian writes:

Practically speaking, it’s hard to say how the Followers will react to losing legal protections. Church leaders do not speak to the media and rarely issue statements, and the church did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Foote has taken a dual approach in dealing with the Followers. He aggressively prosecuted parents who failed to seek medical care for their children. And he reached out, sending a letter last year inviting church members to join him in seeking a middle ground, protecting children while respecting religious practices.

The Followers appear to be divided on the issue of medical care, according to multiple sources familiar with the congregation. Some take their children to doctors but do so privately to avoid criticism or shunning. Some want to use doctors but fear ostracism. And some are hard-core believers who would never seek medical care.

Former member Myra Cunningham grew up in the Followers of Christ Church, where her father is a member.

“They brainwash you into keeping you there,” Myra told KATU News, “because if they didn’t tell people from birth that if you leave that church you are going to go to Hell — why would you stay there?”

Following a near-death trauma during the birth of her second child, Cunningham split with the church. It also meant splitting with her family, possibly for life.

Anyone who leaves the church to join outsiders — church members call them “worldlies” — is shunned by all church members, including family.

Research resources on faith healing
Online book: Churches That Abuse
Cult FAQ
More articles about Followers of Christ Church

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday February 21, 2011.
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