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Prayer vs medical help

Conflicts between prayer and medical assistance,
some leading to lawsuits. A book on the topic.

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Conflicts between prayer vs. medical attention:

Lawsuits are a very crude club with which to change belief systems. However, they have been successful in correcting abuses by psychologists and other therapists who harm clients with Recovered Memory Therapy, Multiple Personality Disorder, and implanted false memories of Satanic Ritual Abuse. Lawsuits have succeeded when professional mental health organizations have failed to control dangerous, experimental therapies among their members. The same dynamic may possibly happen in the future with respect to faith healing.

The following cases are typical examples of the types of conflicts that have arisen between prayer and medical assistance. They are not intended to be inclusive of all such cases.

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1993: Lawsuit involving Christian Science:

Christian Science: In 1993, Douglass Lundman sued his ex-wife and various Christian Science groups due over the death of his 11 year old son in 1989. He had juvenile diabetes - a potentially fatal disorder which incurable but routinely controlled with insulin, diet and exercise. While under the care of his Christian Science mother, he had fallen into a diabetic coma and died. The jury found that the mother, Kathleen McKown, her new husband, the Christian Science practitioner, the Christian Science nursing home that provided his nurse, the local representative of the Committee on Publication and the Church itself shared responsibility for the death.

Lundman was awarded compensatory damages of over 5 million dollars; the Church was assessed an additional 9 million in punitive damages. The former were reduced to 1.5 million on appeal, but the church's punitive damages were not lowered. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. By refusing to review the case, the court let the judgment stand. Stephen Carter criticized this decision of the Supreme Court in the New York Times. He feels that religious freedom is jeopardized when faith groups are punished for non-mainstream beliefs. "...the Justices have left the door open to all sorts of mischief."

This case presents a major dilemma for the church. It cannot abandon faith healing because it represents a foundational principle on which their entire belief system is based. Yet it cannot adsorb many large court-assessed damages without going bankrupt. A middle ground may be possible: the church could urge their members to seek medical attention for certain medical problems that are both life threatening, and curable by medical science. This list might include compound fractures, lumps in the breast, massive bee stings, bites by poisonous animals, diabetes, appendicitis and malignant tumors. They might justify this departure from their traditional healing methods, on financial grounds. If they did not encourage their membership to seek medical help in some cases, then the church might be considered negligent by the courts and driven into bankruptcy by court-assessed punitive damages. 1

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2000 to 2008: Lawsuit involving Christ Church, Oregon City:

This small Christian faith group in Oregon City teaches that medical illness is to be treated with prayer, having the congregation anoint the sick person with oil, and the laying of their hands. It is seen as a sign of weak faith if a parent takes a child to the doctor. The group received national publicity circa 2000 when KATU news of Portland, OR, revealed the unusual number of child deaths among its followers. Their cemetery is similar to a 19th century graveyard when so many tombstones were for children who died in infancy and early childhood. More than 80 children have been buried in their cemetery. As a result of this publicity, the Oregon legislature repealed a law that had previously protected parents who use prayer in place of medical help to treat deadly diseases.

Neil Beagley,15, had suffered from chronic renal failure and urinary tract complications from birth. His condition was left untreated. He developed an inflammation of the urethra, which is a relatively minor problem if treated medically. Lacking medical treatment, he died of the complication in 2008-JUN. When he stopped breathing, nobody called 9-1-1. He had been unable to raise his arms or walk. He had been vomiting for a week before his death. His parents, Jeff and Marci were charged with criminally negligent homicide.

Three months previously, the Beagley's granddaughter Ava Worthington, aged 15 months, died after marathon faith healing sessions. She had suffered from an untreated blood infection. Her father, Carl Brent Worthington, was found guilty of criminal mistreatment for failing to provide medical care to Ava. The child's mother was acquitted of all charges. 5

Jeff testified his trial that: "We try to put God first and the other second, going in and getting [medical] help. God will heal us. I’ve seen a lot of that done."

In Oregon, a person who is 15 years-old or older is legally able to give consent for medical care. However, they do not have the right to refuse medical care that is needed to prevent serious harm to themselves. Neil allegedly refused to go to the doctor, and his parents apparently did not force him to do so.

His parents were found guilty in a jury trial, by a vote of 10 to 2. The maximum penalty for criminally negligent homicide is 10 years in jail. However they are likely to receive a sentence of about 17 months which might be suspended.,3

This is the first time that a member of the Followers of Christ church has been convicted of homicide in the congregation's long history of allowing children to die from treatable medical conditions. Steven K. Green, director of Willamette University's Center for Religion and Democracy said that:

"This is a signal to the religious community that they should be on notice that their activities will be scrutinized,"
He suggested that other prosecutors may be emboldened to take similar cases to court. 4,5

Rita Swan, president of Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, regards the conviction as a victory for the children of Oregon. She said:
"I know the parents are broken-hearted. But love and good intentions are not all it takes to be a good parent."

It is hard to predict what effect the conviction will have on the Followers of Christ church. It could harden the members' rejection of of medical services, cause them to view the Beagleys as martyrs, and/or to view themselves as a religiously persecuted minority who are trying to respond to a higher calling. We suspect that the needless deaths of innocent children will continue.

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2010: Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry students sued for refusing to summon assistance:

Sarah Elisabeth Koivumaki and Zachary Gudelunas were students at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry in Redding, CA, one program of a local Pentecostal church. 6 According to the Redding Record, they were at a small party when they met an acquaintance, Jason Michael Carlsen. The three drove to a cliff beside the Sacramento River about 3 AM. They sat with their feet dangling over the edge. Koivumaki told detectives that Carlsen stood with his back to the edge of the cliff, and pretended to jump. He allegedly slipped out of control, fell over the edge, tried to hold on, but later fell and landed on rocks at the bottom of the cliff. He was knocked unconscious. The other two thought that he was dead.

According to the Reading Record: "Bethel’s members purport to have the ability to heal people through prayer and bring the dead back to life." The article suggested that Koivumaki and Gudelunas were concerned that they might be exiled from the school. They had earlier signed a no-drinking pledge. They believed that if they could get to him, that they could pray him back to life. However, they first had to reach his body -- perhaps in order to touch his body as part of the ritual.

Carlsen, 25, survived but is now a paraplegic. He has launched a lawsuit claiming that the two Bethel students had tried to cover up evidence that they had been at the top of the cliff. It states that the: "defendants’ refusal to summon assistance was willful, malicious, morally outrageous, and indefensible." He seeks more than $25,000 damages. The lawsuit alleges assault and battery, negligence, willful misconduct and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It claims that Koivumaki was crying over her brother's death, that he had laughed at her, and that one of the students knocked or pushed him over the cliff. It further claims that: "Gudelunas did not extend his hand, the blanket or make any effort to assist Carlsen."

The students spent six hours trying unsuccessfully to get to Carlsen's body, and discussing what to do. Koivumaki called her mother in Canada who suggested that they call the police. After another 45 minute delay, they made the call. Police rescued Carlsen within 40 minutes of the call.

The Rev. Bill Johnson, Bethel’s pastor, claimed in an earlier newspaper article that he and his followers had healed illnesses through prayer -- ranging from deafness to brain tumors. Churchgoers also claim that during religious services, angel feathers and gold dust appear in the air and settle on the parishioners. October 2008-OCT, a Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry student relocated to Washington and started a "dead-raising team." They worked with local firefighters and prayed over dead bodies found on emergency calls. The article did not indicate what percentage of dead bodies were resuscitated as a result of the team's efforts. 6

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A book on this topic:

  Shawn Peters, "When prayer fails: Faith healing, children and the law" Oxford University Press, (2007).

Amazon.com review:
" 'When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law'
is the first book to fully examine the complex web of legal and ethical questions that arise when criminal prosecutions are mounted against parents whose children die as a result of the phenomenon known by experts as religion-based medical neglect. Do constitutional protections for religious liberty shield parents who fail to provide adequate medical treatment for their sick children? Are parents likewise shielded by state child-neglect faith laws that seem to include exemptions for healing practices? What purpose do prosecutions really serve when it's clear that many deeply religious parents harbor no fear of temporal punishment? Peters offers a review of important legal cases in both England and America from the 19th century to the present day. He devotes special attention to cases involving Christian Science, the source of many religion-based medical neglect deaths, but also considers cases arising from the refusal of Jehovah's witnesses to allow blood transfusions or inoculations. Individual cases dating back to the mid-19th century illuminate not only the legal issues at stake but also the profound human drama of religion-based medical neglect of children." Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Stephen Carter, Op-ed piece, New York Times, 1996-JAN-31.
  2. "Father testifies in faith healing trial ," Religion News Blog, 2010-JAN-28, at: http://www.religionnewsblog.com/
  3. Matthew Graham, "Mother takes stand, says she never thought son could die," Oregon City News, 2010-JAN-28, at: http://www.oregoncitynewsonline.com/
  4. Steven Mayes, "Jeffrey, Marci Beagley found guilty in Oregon City faith-healing trial," Oregon Live, 2010-FEB-02, at: http://www.oregonlive.com/
  5. "Parents found guilty in Oregon City faith-healing trial." Religious News Blog, 2010-FEB-03, at: http://www.religionnewsblog.com/
  6. Bethel Church's home page is at: http://www.ibethel.org/
  7. Ryan Sabalow, "Faith healing or foul play? 2008 cliff fall victim sues Bethel students," Redding Record, 2010-OCT-21, at: http://www.redding.com/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1996-JAN-14
Latest update: 2010-OCT-23
Author: B.A. Robinson
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