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OREGON CITY, Ore. — Ava Worthington died surrounded by loved ones who believed their prayers would heal the young child.
As the 15-month-old girl struggled to breathe, church members anointed her with oil and pleaded with God to provide a cure. But Ava died March 2, 2008, of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection.
Antibiotics could have saved her life, the state medical examiner’s office said.
Her death was more than a tragedy, according to prosecutors, it was a crime. Ava’s parents, Carl and Raylene Worthington, are scheduled for trial beginning Tuesday (June 23) on charges of manslaughter and criminal mistreatment.
The Worthington case will be the first time anyone has been prosecuted under a 1999 Oregon law passed in response to an extraordinary number of child deaths involving the Worthingtons’ church, the Followers of Christ in Oregon City. The law eliminated religion as a defense in most cases of medical neglect.
Across the country, advocates for religious freedom, parental rights and child safety will be watching. “This will be the test for the new law in Oregon,” said Shawn Peters, a University of Wisconsin at Madison teacher and an expert on law and religion.
For nearly a decade after Oregon cracked down on faith-healing deaths, the 1999 law was mostly stagnant since there were no verified cases of Followers of Christ children dying from medical neglect. Then last spring, the faith-healing controversy rocketed back into the headlines.
Four months after Ava died, her 16-year-old uncle, Neil Beagley, died of complications from an untreated urinary tract blockage.
Beagley’s parents, also members of the Followers of Christ church, are scheduled for trial in January on charges of criminally negligent homicide.
“It shows how these cases continue. The cycle continues unbroken,” said Peters, author of “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law.”
The Worthington trial will touch on some profound questions. When does a child’s welfare outweigh religious freedom? When does the state’s responsibility to safeguard children trump parental rights? Perhaps the most haunting question is this: What kind of parent stands by while a child writhes in pain or suffers a lingering death?
“Part of what makes these cases so tragic is that the parents are doing what they think is best for their children,” Peters said. “There is no criminal intent.”
The Worthingtons maintain that the state and federal constitutions give them the right to care for their children according to their religious beliefs. Their lawyers have established the Worthington Defense Fund and are soliciting donations to defend those rights.
In a statement issued Saturday through attorney Steven B. Ungar, the church said: “Family autonomy is a deeply respected value and tradition in our country, as is religious freedom. Both are reflected in a myriad of laws at every level. And while the government traditionally has a say in some decisions involving parent and child, criminally charging the Worthingtons under these circumstances violates the Constitution and is an abuse of power.”
Prosecutors say religious and parental rights do not give the Worthingtons the right to endanger the life of a child. On that point, the law favors the state.
Nationally, courts have ruled that states may override parents and require medical treatment, such as dental work or tonsillectomies, for young children. Some courts have limited the state’s right to intervene to cases where the child’s life is threatened.
“The vast majority of cases from around the country hold that the state does have the power to punish parents for withholding medical treatment that would have saved a child’s life,” said Charles F. Hinkle, a Portland attorney who specializes in constitutional issues and has consulted with the Worthingtons’ attorneys.
No Oregon appellate court has ruled that religious freedom claims are absolute.
“Defense lawyers typically wave the First Amendment or the Constitution around, claiming there’s some sort of constitutional right at stake, even though there isn’t,” said Greg Hamilton of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, an organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom. “God uses human beings to create remedies and to work with prayer in one hand and medical science in the other.”
A recent Wisconsin case again tested those same constitutional boundaries.
Two weeks after Ava died, an 11-year-old Wisconsin girl, Kara Neumann, died from an undiagnosed diabetic attack. Neumann’s parents, who tried to heal the girl with prayer, argued that their constitutional right to religious freedom protected them from criminal charges.
Judge Vincent Howard rejected the Neumanns’ argument and ordered them to stand trial. “The free exercise clause of the First Amendment protects religious belief but not necessarily conduct,” Howard said in his ruling.
The girl’s mother was convicted last month of second-degree reckless homicide. The father goes to trial next month.
The Worthington case has opened a window on the Followers of Christ church.
The Followers never grant media interviews, but church president Fred Smith briefly discussed the church’s approach to healing the sick in a recent court hearing. “We believe in Jesus Christ … and he tells you to anoint them with oil and pray for them. So that’s what we believe in.”
The church’s reliance on spiritual healing over medical treatment stems from a passage in the Book of James: “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 …”
Former church members say those who seek medical care are shunned, but Smith told the court that the rejection of secular medicine is not absolute. “It is definitely not encouraged, but it is not forbidden,” Smith said. “If someone uses a doctor, that person is not tossed out of the church.”
The church finds few allies among mainstream Christian churches, which often fund entire hospital networks.
“I am a strong supporter of the religious freedom of the family, including the freedom to raise children very different from the norm, but I have always drawn a line when the health of a child is seriously at risk,” said Stephen L. Carter, a Yale Law School professor who has written about the role of religion in politics.
“The reason is not that I think the parents are wrong in their beliefs — the state has absolutely no business saying so or even hinting so — but because the cost of potential error is so high.”
By STEVE MAYES
c. 2009 Religion News Service
(Steve Mayes writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.)
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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