Church wins appeal in suit over Michigan child's death

Citing the First Amendment, statutory law, and public policy, a Michigan court of appeals has absolved two Christian Science practitioners and The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston from negligence in the l977 death of a young child. The verdict upheld an earlier judgment of a trial court that refused to place the matter before a jury on the basis that it would entail an improper probe of the constitutional right to religious freedom.

In rejecting the appeal of the Rev. Ralph Brown, representing the estate of the deceased child, Matthew Swan, a three-judge panel unanimously said that they were ``convinced that First Amendment religious freedom [was] inexorably implicated given the facts of the case.''

The appellate court agreed that if the case went to trial, Christian Science beliefs and teaching would be offered into evidence and the jury would be drawn into the constitutionally impermissible task of interpreting and deciding church teachings and policy.

The judges said the Michigan Legislature has ``already engaged in a balancing of the interests in child protection and religious freedom'' in passing a law requiring certain persons to report suspected child abuse or neglect.

But they stressed that ``while a variety of health professionals are required to report, no mention is made of Christian Science practitioners.''

``By not requiring religious parents and practitioners to ignore their beliefs in healing by spiritual means and to turn to medicine, which would be the most effective way of protecting sick children, the legislature has evidenced a policy in favor of the untrammeled exercise of good faith spiritual healing practices,'' the court said.

As to the claim that the defendants had acted unreasonably, the judges said the ```reasonable man' in this case would be a reasonably prudent Christian Scientist.''

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