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An Oregon jury acquitted two Oregon parents, Carl and Raylene Worthington, on July 23 in the death of their 15-month-old daughter, Ava, who succumbed to pneumonia as the couple relied on prayer instead of seeking conventional medical help.
Shawn Francis Peters, a faith-healing expert at the University of Wisconsin and author of “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law,” followed the case closely and talks about what the case means for future clashes between religious law and civil law.
Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What are the ramifications of the decision made in Oregon?
A: It remains to be seen what the implications will be, both in Oregon and nationally. It surprises me because Oregon had revamped its laws to make it easier to prosecute parents. This was going to be the first test of that revamped law, and the first test did not work. It demonstrates how unsettled these legal and ethical questions remain even though the courts have been grappling with them for over 100 years.
Q: Does this case provide greater protection to others who find themselves under investigation for treating illness with faith rather than medicine?
A: The arguments that the Worthingtons made are very typical in these types of cases. I don’t actually think that they did anything new.
I don’t know that it’s going to provide some sort of strategic blueprint for other defendants. The Worthingtons found a jury that was sympathetic to their claims and was open to considering their point of view.
Q: What does the verdict say about the public perception of faith-healing?
A: Americans aren’t necessarily hostile to the concept of faith healing. In fact, there is openness to its possibilities. The trial may have been less about faith-healing and more about the way we view the responsibilities of parents. There was a sense among jurors that the parents were doing what they thought was right. As a society, we have to give parents the latitude to do that.
Q: So religious law supersedes civil law?
A: It was more that the jury just did not see a clear intent to harm the child or an overwhelming evidence of negligence. The jury never really got beyond the sense that the parents did not try to hurt the child, but in fact, did what they thought was right. Juries typically struggle with that and then go the other way.
Q: Are there constitutional protections that protect parents who fail to provide medical treatment for their children?
A: There really aren’t outright protections for these kinds of practices. There is certainly a First Amendment right for the free exercise of religion. But, in the realm of child health, it’s pretty clear that the state interest is in helping the health and welfare of the child. That takes precedence over the parent’s right of the free practice of religion. Some state laws have exemptions for faith-healing practices.
Q: Does temporal punishment serve any justice to religious parents who abide only by the tenets of their faith?
A: Deterrence is really one part of the picture. As a society we do feel people should be punished for their misdeeds. We lose sight of the victims in these cases and we tend to forget that a child has died. I do feel these prosecutions, when they work out, do serve that purpose.
Q: In letting these parents off the hook, does that undermine any efforts to change the faith-healing mentality?
A: These aren’t hardened street thugs; the Worthingtons seem like very nice people. They just think they are following a higher law. I think the faith-healing community will be further encouraged to keep doing what they’ve been doing. Maybe this verdict demonstrates that we do have legal protections for engaging in this type of conduct. Law enforcement in Oregon is going to have to figure out a way to address the fallout of this verdict.
Q: Do you think this verdict will be a factor in the next trial where a Wisconsin man is charged in the death of his 11-year-old daughter when he prayed for her instead of seeking medical help?
A: In the Wisconsin case, the mother has already been found guilty and the father is now on trial. I don’t think the outcome of the Worthington case is going to have a direct bearing on the Wisconsin trial, but it does give a certain feeling of hope for the defendant.
c. 2009 Religion News Service
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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