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Healing and `Free Exercise' of Religion

By Curtis J. SitomerCurtis J. Sitomer, a Monitor correspondent and editor for 25 years, now is Manager of Publications, Information, & Research for the Christian Science Committee on Publication. / May 28, 1991



RELIGIOUS freedom, including the right to practice what you preach, became part of our civil liberties in the United States with the adoption of the Bill of Rights 200 years ago. Courts and legislatures have found more consensus, however, in interpreting the clause of the First Amendment that prohibits ``an establishment of religion'' than in reaching accord on what constitutes ``the free exercise therof.''

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Establishment cases continue to arise, particularly in the area of religious displays on public grounds and the meeting of student denominational groups on school campuses. Yet courts today seem to be more accommodating of religion than their counterparts of the 1950s and 1960s, which generally held to a strict separation of church and state.

The area of religious practice, however, is still largely unresolved. In principle, religious beliefs are absolute and cannot be limited by the state. But religious practice has been subject to government regulation if it is considered detrimental to the public good. Typically, snake-charming, drug use, and the taking of poison for spiritually related purposes have fallen into this category.

In a different realm, however, is the question of healing through prayer. And in recent years state legislatures have written into child abuse and endangerment statutes exemption from criminal prosecution for parents who rely on prayer rather than medicine in the care of a seriously ill child if a death occurs.

Highly publicized cases today include those of Christian Scientists in California and Massachusetts, in particular, who have turned to prayer for healing a child, and Faith Tabernacle and Faith Assembly families in Pennsylvania who have resisted measles inoculations, utilizing prayer instead as a protection to their children.

These situations have stirred public thought and triggered medical reaction. New attempts are under way to remove from statutes legal accommodations that give parents who rely on spiritual healing the same protections as those who rely on medicine.

In Pennsylvania, after civil liberties groups had bent their stance on individual rights so as not to oppose compulsory inoculations for children during a measles epidemic, the American Civil Liberties Union drew the line at a judicial mandate which would have required periodic medical examinations of all children and a public listing of all religious groups that believe in faith healing. A family-court judge revoked this order after widespread criticism of excessive state intrusion on individual rights .

The issue of medical treatment versus spiritual care for children is being debated in forums on religion and public policy, academic settings, and pediatric meetings, as well as in legislative halls. A recent convocation at St. John's University School of Law concluded: ``The only trend that may be gleaned from case law is one of inconsistency and conflict.... One point is well settled: This is an extremely divisive issue which tugs at the very roots of the Constitution. It pits the State against the in dividual in a contest for what some see as basic, constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.''