No faith healing instead of medical care for kids, state senator says

Staff writerJanuary 17, 2014 

State law in Washington requires parents to provide their children with food, water, shelter, clothing and health care — things the state deems “basic necessities of life.”

That is, unless the parent is a Christian Scientist, in which case faith-based healing can take the place of a trip to the doctor.

A bill introduced Friday by state Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, would eliminate an exemption in Washington state law that allows Christian Scientists—but not members of other religious groups—to treat their children with prayer or faith-healing methods instead of traditional medicine.

Mullet said he doesn’t think that Christian Scientists should be held to different standards than other groups when it comes to what counts as child abuse or neglect.

“A child has no say in it,” Mullet said. “If you’re ill, prayer doesn’t count as medical treatment. You can do that and medical treatment, but it has to be both.”

Mullet said his bill is mostly inspired by incidents that have taken place in Washington’s neighboring states of Oregon and Idaho.

Oregon changed its laws in the late 1990s after widespread news reports on a group known as the Followers of Christ, which rejects modern medicine in favor of faith healing.

Many children among the Followers of Christ died when they could have been saved by basic medical procedures, according to local and national news reports.

Oregon law now allows for counties to prosecute parents who deny their children medical care for religious reasons.

Idaho still has no such law, however, according to a November report from Portland’s KATU News. The TV news station found a cemetery used by Followers of Christ members in Idaho that contained 144 graves of minor children — more than 25 percent of the graveyard’s total headstones.

Mullet said the situation in Washington isn’t as dire as in Idaho or in 1990s Oregon. Washington provides a religious defense for neglect only to Christian Scientists, and also requires “a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner” to perform a healing treatment for it to be considered a substitute for medical care.

The most-often cited case of faith-healing death in Washington is Zachery Swezey, a 17-year-old in Okanogan who died in 2009 when his appendix burst. His parents, who were members of the Church of the First Born, were prosecuted in Okanogan County under the state’s current law.

“It’s not like we have 20 cases,” Mullet said. “It’s kind of one of those questions where do you wait for a bad incident, or do you do something before it happens?”

Mullet’s bill is co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, as well as Democratic Sen. Jeannie Darneille of Tacoma.

The bill also has backing from a national group known as Children’s Health Care is a Legal Duty (CHILD), which has fought to pass laws against religious-based abuse and neglect in more than a dozen states.

The group is led by Rita Swan, a former Christian Scientist who left the church after her 16-month-old son, Matthew, died from meningitis in 1977. He received faith healing, but no medical care, she said.

Swan said Washington’s law “is narrow in that it only applies to Christian Scientists, but it is certainly pretty blatant in calling prayer medical treatment.”

“I don’t see why Christian Scientists should have a right to let their kids die,” Swan said. “I don’t see why they should have a law that lets them do this, even if they don’t mean to do this.”

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