Prayer and the Public Trust
THE story of Pamela Hamilton is a sad one - for her, for her parents, her church, and the state. The 12-year-old girl died under mandated medical care. She and her family opposed extensive chemotherapy treatments for a diagnosed tumor in her leg. Their grounds were religious. As members of the Church of God of the Union Assembly in La Follette, Tenn., the Hamiltons believed in spiritual healing and refused medication on religious grounds.Skip to next paragraph
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Tennessee's Department of Human Services took Pamela into custody when her parents wouldn't provide medical treatment for her. She was given chemotherapy, which many doctors regard as controversial treatment.
In ordering her custody, the state reasoned that Pamela was too young to make up her own mind about whether to rely on medicine or prayer. She should have the opportunity to form her own religious beliefs when she becomes an adult, the district attorney argued.
When Pamela died, the physicians said the treatments were not started early enough to save her life - although no medical guarantees had been given for her recovery.
This case raises two fundamental freedom questions:
1. May the state - over the objection of parents - make decisions about what is in the best interests of a child?
2. May constitutional guarantees of free exercise of religion be set aside under certain circumstances?
United States courts are now struggling with these issues. What they do may greatly change public policy.
The issue of parental rights versus state jurisdiction is central to Cruzon v. Missouri Dept. of Health, a case now being decided by the US Supreme Court. Although it involves a young woman who is in a vegetative state as a result of an automobile accident, and there is no apparent religious issue, the jurists must decide whether the parents' desire to remove feeding tubes should take precedence over the state of Missouri's claim of a fundamental responsibility to keep the patient functioning through mechanical apparatus. Ross Nankivell, visiting assistant professor at Northern Illinois University's college of law, says the main issue here is not the ``right to die'' but the ``right to refuse treatment.''
Findings in the Cruzon case could influence the results of other cases that more directly address the right to practice what you preach, say some church leaders.
The Mark Rippberger family rely on prayer for healing. Their five children are healthy youngsters. But Natalie, an infant, died after an illness, later diagnosed to be meningitis.
The Rippbergers had prayed fervently for Natalie on the grounds that their religion, Christian Science, had effectively healed them in the past. The state prosecuted them on manslaughter and felony child-abuse charges and a California jury brought in a conviction on the abuse charge while finding the couple not guilty of manslaughter.
An attempt by the prosecutor to give the state legal jurisdiction over the other children in the family was denied by the judge. But the parents have been fined, sentenced to public-service work, and ordered to report any future illnesses of their children to authorities and learn about childhood diseases through a manual designed for home use. An appeal is in the works.
Religious free exercise has been a difficult issue for US courts. There is consensus that constitutional prohibitions in the First Amendment against government ``establishment'' of religion are usually absolute, but that religious ``free exercise'' may be limited.
The high-water mark for the right to practice-what-you-preach came with a Supreme Court ruling in 1972. The jurists ruled in Wisconsin v. Yoder that the Amish religious sect is exempt from state compulsory-education laws that require children to attend school beyond the eighth grade. The Amish, who abide by a simple rural lifestyle, say that education beyond this point teaches worldly values that are at odds with their creed.