October 19, 2011

Faith Healing in Oregon

by Quincy D. Newell

For a long time, people have come to the West to be healed. Whether it’s the high desert air thought to relieve the symptoms of tuberculosis, asthma, and other ailments; the cosmic vortices, thought to concentrate spiritual energy; or the charismatic personalities, able to heal through prayer, the laying on of hands, and other religious practices, healing and the West have gone hand-in-hand in the American imagination.

Aimee Semple McPherson, whose ministry was built in large part on healing, preaching in 1939.  Photo from the Los Angeles Examiner collection, Regional History Collection, via http://www.usc.edu/libraries/archives/la/scandals/aimee.html. 
Many of those healing practices were, or are, alternatives to the modern medicine of their day. Their scientific validity has been questioned – their practitioners have taken them on faith. 

But faith-based healing is struggling in the West, at least in Oregon, these days. An Oregon jury recently convicted Dale and Shannon Hickman of manslaughter in the death of their newborn son. The Hickmans are members of the Followers of Christ Church, based in Oregon City. (The church also has branches elsewhere in the West, including three in Idaho.)

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, via katu.com.
The Followers of Christ are a small church with Pentecostal roots. The approximately one thousand members believe in healing through prayer and anointing with consecrated oil – not through modern medicine. The Hickmans’ trial is the latest in a run of several Oregon cases concerning the deaths of Followers children whose lives could have been saved by basic medical treatment.

For many years, the Followers of Christ were protected from prosecution by Oregon laws that granted religious exemption from criminal charges in some cases, including cases of manslaughter and criminal mistreatment. According to journalist Susan Nielsen, this made Oregon “the nation’s most lenient state for parents who let their children suffer in the name of religion.” (That quote is indicative of local discourse surrounding these cases, which are framed in terms of child abuse rather than in terms of religious freedom.)

In 1999, the Oregon legislature narrowed the exemptions, eliminating the spiritual healing defense in cases of second-degree manslaughter and first- and second-degree criminal mistreatment. This year, they passed another law eliminating “spiritual treatment” as a defense against homicide charges and subjecting parents to mandatory minimum sentencing rules. But even before the 2011 legislation, the District Attorney in Clackamas County (which covers some of the suburbs of Portland, OR, including Oregon City) had brought charges against three couples. The Hickmans are the fourth couple in two years to be charged. Seven of the eight people charged have been convicted.

These cases are tragic. Since 2009, parents have been charged in the case of a 15-month old girl who died from pneumonia and another infection; a 16-year-old boy who died of a urinary blockage; a child who nearly went blind in her left eye because of an abnormal growth of blood vessels there (the state intervened and got treatment for her, which the parents may have to pay for); and the Hickmans’ son David, who died from an infection shortly after being born two months prematurely. Concern about the Followers is not new; Time carried an article in 1998 raising concerns about the high mortality rates for children in the group and the extraordinary suffering some endured before death.

The tragedy, I think, can overshadow the extremely complicated nature of the issues at stake here. On the one hand, we have the state’s concern for the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens, its children. On the other hand is the concern of religious people for their First Amendment rights – specifically, the free exercise of religion. On the third hand (Kali seems an appropriate image here) is the question of parental rights – the ability of parents to raise their children as they see fit, without undue interference from the state. The case of Neil Beagley, the 16-year-old boy who died of a urinary blockage, raises a concern for the fourth hand: minors’ own religious convictions, and their ability to act on those convictions.

Neil Beagley at age 14, via oregonlive.com.
Neil’s parents, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley, were sentenced to 16 months in prison for their son’s death. According to Marci Beagley’s testimony, reported by Nicole Dungca, “As Neil lay in the bed before his death in June, he asked that family members come for a laying on of hands, his mother testified. They asked him if he wanted medical care, but she said he declined.” Some two and a half months earlier, Neil spoke with a Department of Human Services caseworker, telling him that “he had the flu, but was feeling better and didn’t want to go to the doctor.”

In the United States, we have tried children younger than Neil Beagley as adults for taking the lives of other people. Beagley, according to his mother’s testimony, played a significant role in his own death by refusing medical care. His church, to which he was devoted, taught that seeking medical care showed a “lack of faith.” It is not unreasonable to think that Neil believed asking for a doctor might jeopardize his salvation.

Neil learned the beliefs that led him to reject medical treatment from his parents and other members of his faith community. Acting on those beliefs, he essentially foreclosed the possibility of saving his life. His parents claimed that they complied with his wishes based on their understanding (facilitated by conversations with a state-employed social worker) that Oregon law allows children to seek or refuse medical treatment once they reach the age of fifteen. (Technically, the law allows children to seek medical treatment, but says nothing about their right to refuse it. The law also obligates parents to provide adequate medical care for their children.) But notice the apparent paradox into which Neil Beagley and his parents unwittingly walked: the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, allows virtually unlimited freedom of religious belief as well as limited freedom of religious practice. 

The current justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.  Of these nine people, three are Jewish and six are Catholic.  Only two were born west of the Mississippi.
The limitations on practice generally revolve around protection of vulnerable populations (like children) and restrictions on impinging on other people’s rights. It’s basically agreed that you can believe anything you want – that the earth is flat, that the wafer on your tongue is human/divine flesh, that the world is going to end next year, that evolution is a crock. You can also teach your children these beliefs. But, at least in Oregon, if your children – children who are apparently old enough to make decisions on their own, old enough to drive, old enough to hold a job – if those children act on those beliefs in ways that physically harm themselves (but nobody else) – you are liable for criminal prosecution. Jeffrey and Marci Beagley were convicted because their son learned and practiced the religion they taught him.

The Followers, of course, are not the only religious group to teach doctrines that contradict current scientific thought. I’m thinking here specifically of conservative Christians who reject the theory of evolution because it conflicts with their interpretation of the Bible. My friends who are biologists rant every so often about what they perceive as these folks’ hypocrisy, dutifully taking antibiotics when a doctor prescribes them, but rejecting the science on which these drugs are based. Followers eliminate the hypocrisy that drives my friends nutty, but by doing so they open themselves up to criminal prosecution.

Striking a balance between respect for citizens’ religious convictions, the need to protect children, and the desire to raise our children according to the dictates of our own consciences is a difficult task. In the wake of so many childrens’ deaths, Oregon has moved to emphasize the protection of children, giving less deference to the wishes of parents and the concern for free exercise rights.

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