Prayer Is Not Criminal

GOV. William Weld (R) of Massachusetts has sent back to his state's legislature a child-abuse bill that would make the ``wanton and reckless'' causing or allowing of bodily harm to children under 14 years of age a criminal offense.

Weld supports the bill, in the main, as do we: Massachusetts has needed a strong child-abuse statute, as other states have. His objection is to a provision in the bill that would strike from a different section of the state's general laws a provision offering an exemption from prosecution for parents relying on spiritual healing. In a letter to the legislature explaining his request, Weld said that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had held in the recent Commonwealth v. Twitchell ruling ``that the spiritual treatment provision ... does not provide protection against a charge of involuntary manslaughter based on the parents' wanton or reckless failure to provide medical services to a child.'' The spiritual-healing exemption that the new bill would strike applies to cases of ``negligence,'' he said, while the new bill addresses itself to the ``wanton or reckless'' standard (i.e., a manslaughter standard).

We hope that the Massachusetts legislature will follow the governor's lead in this matter. To put into one statute the deliberate abuse of children and the reliance on prayer for healing is at the least to attempt to yoke together two very different sets of motives - one to harm, and another to help. It would criminalize prayer.

This is a time of widespread review of both matters affecting children and matters affecting health. Everything touching on health is being considered to find its right place in the medical, insurance, and legal system.

We would offer that there is another system also fundamental to the American democracy that should be given equal consideration - the opportunity to seek God's help for basic needs, such as food, shelter, and health, as well as for moral redemption and spiritual peace. This is a complete system: The God that we ask to bless a marriage we petition to sustain its progeny, to bring peace to our children's neighborhood, to improve their schools, to support the police who safeguard public order. To those guided to ``pray without ceasing'' there can be no exemption clause as to when they should not pray.

Christian Scientists obey the health rules asked of them in regard to inoculations, to the presence of a doctor for obstetrics, and so forth. If they think Christian Science is not helping them, they are free to turn to other care systems, including medical care; in such cases common ethics requires that a practitioner engaged to provide spiritual treatment for a patient withdraw from the work, leaving the individual to carry on with the treatment of his or her choice.

No doubt people like Christian Scientists, who reflexively pray about all concerns, need to explain better what they are about. It needs to be better understood that for Christian Scientists, prayer is not just instead of treatment, or in support of treatment: Prayer is treatment. The decision to rely on prayer instead of ``shunning conventional medicine,'' as the familiar wire-service phrase now has it, is a positive one, not a negative one. And in the case of even young children, it is a decision generally made with their active consultation to a degree not widely appreciated.

When Christian Scientists endure an apparent failure of their methods, as in some recent publicized cases, they face pressure to pull them into the general net of medical, insurance, and legal practices.

We understand that it is the role of government to consider its responsibilities toward the health and welfare of children. We support the course that attempts to do the greatest good for the greatest number, which at this time means support for a more effective care system, mostly medical, at the federal and state level.

We appreciate Governor Weld's action discerning among the competing interests. And we are confident that the legislative, executive, and judicial system can discriminate between criminal and spiritual matters.

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