A FLORIDA couple convicted by a Sarasota jury for failure to give medical aid to their young daughter will likely appeal the decision to a higher court. William and Christine Hermanson were found guilty of felony child abuse and third-degree murder earlier this week. They are Christian Scientists who relied on their religious faith and its tenets of healing prayer rather than medicine in treating their seven-year old daughter, Amy, who died 2 years ago of what was later diagnosed as diabetes.
The Hermansons had argued that their reliance on their religious beliefs was in accord with the US Constitution and state law. The First Amendment provides free exercise of religion without governmental interference. A 1975 Florida statute - which is similar to many other state enactments across the US - upholds the right of parents who are ``legitimately practicing'' their religion to rely on prayer for healing without fear of prosecution.
The issue of depending on spiritual healing for children is drawing a great deal of interest in the US and in other nations. Christian Scientists argue that healing through prayer is not only a whole way of life, but also an effective alternative to medical treatment. They cite a long record of success, including cases declared incurable, and even terminal, by physicians.
Nathan Talbot, spokesman for The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, says that the issue must be looked at in terms of ``responsible public choice'' rather than in terms of denying medical care.
Mr. Talbot adds that ``as the public comes to discover the remarkable record of spiritual healing, there will be a very different response.'' The Hermansons were the first Christian Science parents in more than two decades to be criminally prosecuted for electing spiritual treatment in lieu of medical care.
Of late, prosecutions involving children are challenging state statutes in Arizona, California, and Massachusetts that specifically accommodate those who sincerely rely on spiritual means for healing and protect them from prosecution under child-abuse and neglect laws.
The California Supreme Court recently upheld the validity of such a statutory provision but declined to prevent the issue from going to trial. And the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in February that there was no proper legal basis for bringing court action against the Christian Science church and its practitioners in connection with the death of an infant child.
Under Florida law, the Hermansons could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison. They had earlier rejected a plea bargain that would have set 15 years probation in exchange for a guilty or ``no contest'' plea.
The defendants' lawyers intend to offer several motions, including one asking the judge to reverse the jury verdict on statutory grounds.