IN the wake of a grueling three-week trial of a Christian Science couple in California, the American tradition of religious tolerance seems considerably more tenuous. The case was the second of its kind to be tried in recent months and one of a handful currently in the courts. The couple, Mark Rippberger and Susan Middleton-Rippberger, were indicted over four years ago for turning to the practice of spiritual healing in Christian Science rather than to medical care when their nine-month-old daughter, Natalie, became ill. The tragedy of her death was caught up in a highly public debate on the relationship between the state, the family, and religious life.
The parents' acquittal on the charge of involuntary manslaughter reflected recognition at least of their deep love for their children.
Hearing Mark Rippberger's moving testimony on the witness stand, no one could doubt their love or their tender and ceaseless attentiveness to Natalie during her illness.
Their conviction on the lesser charge of felony child endangerment, however, raises disturbing questions about the readiness of many to restrict the expression of that love when it differs with conventional majority opinion, especially in regard to conventional medicine.
Legally, the endangerment verdict was a judgment on the couple's choice of healing method rather than its results. Prosecutions under this law would make serious reliance on spiritual healing for one's children a criminal offense without considering whether such healing is actually effective and can be intelligently practiced.
There were other disturbing aspects of the trial. The prosecutor's unhidden antagonism toward Christian Science turned the case into what one nonreligious observer called a virtual ``heresy trial.'' Deputy District Attorney David Dunn inveighed against healing prayer as a ``19th-century treatment.'' But he showed little understanding either of what the conscientious discipline of such prayer in Christian Science involves or of what it has meant - the broad experience of healing - in many thousands of families.
This points to the deeper issue involved in these court cases. As the 21st century approaches, is religion simply a kind of obsolete cultural window dressing, to be tolerated only insofar as it isn't taken too seriously? Are religious differences permissible only on matters that make no practical difference? The movement to repress religious healing, as a Christian Scientist has written elsewhere, seeks to mete out punishment ``to those who have practical expectations from religion.''
During his closing arguments to the jury, the prosecutor placed a large poster with the question ``Who Speaks for Natalie?'' prominently on display. The question deserves profound reflection rather than manipulative courtroom theatrics. The right to ``speak'' for children is not earned by dogmatic assertion, secular or religious, but only by compassionate commitment to the hard work of healing and caring from day to day. That commitment is not monopolized by those whose orientation is to medical care, any more than healing itself is.
In a society struggling with the consequences of widespread parental irresponsibility - where one encounters almost daily reports of addicted or damaged or unwanted newborns - there's far more to be said for spiritual healing and the life-affirming values that underlie it than the verdict in this case implies. The continuing challenge for those whose practice is affected by it will be to earn public tolerance by virtue of their wisdom, love, and healing works.