California Couple Sentenced in Spiritual Healing Case

A CALIFORNIA couple plans to appeal their conviction on charges of child endangerment on constitutional grounds. Mark and Susan Rippberger, formerly of Santa Rosa and now living in Lompoc, were placed on probation on Nov. 2 by Judge Lloyd Von Der Mehden of the Superior Court of Sonoma County in connection with the death of their eight-month old daughter, Natalie, in 1984.

The Rippbergers had been charged with involuntary manslaughter for relying on spiritual means, through Christian Science, to treat Natalie during her illness.

A jury put aside the manslaughter charge but upheld counts of felony child endangerment against the couple for resorting to prayer rather than seeking medical attention for what was later diagnosed as meningitis.

After hearing arguments from defense counsel David Mackenroth that the charges should be reduced to a misdemeanor and deputy district attorney David Dunn suggesting that the Rippbergers should serve jail time as a warning to other parents, Judge Von Der Mehden decided on probation.

He fined each of the defendants $5,000, and required them to serve 300 hours each in volunteer community service work. In addition, the judge mandated a family health or first aid course, and ordered that the defendants read Good Housekeeping's ``Family Health and Medical Guide,'' particularly those parts about childhood diseases and available medical care.

The probationary stipulation also says that the Rippbergers must authorize the schools of their other school-age children to provide emergency medical care. It further stipulates that the family must report to authorities any serious illness of a minor child within 48 hours and inform their probation officer of consultation with a Christian Science practitioner or nurse regarding the illness of one of their youngsters.

Imposition of these terms of probation is withheld pending a hearing later this week on the defense's plan for appeal.

Mr. Mackenroth says his clients will comply with the probation, but he will take the case to California's Court of Appeal on procedural grounds. He may also seek legal relief from the federal courts on constitutionally-related ``due process'' and ``entrapment'' issues.

In a pre-sentencing hearing, the judge denied the state direct jurisdiction over five other Rippberger children, ages three to 13.

He pointed out that such a court order, as recommended by the prosecutor, would ``infringe on the fundamental rights'' of these youngsters.

Judge Von Der Mehden also noted that the Rippbergers had no criminal intent nor were guilty of prior crimes. He said that they were a stable family in terms of education and employment, and he indicated they were very remorseful over the death of Natalie and would comply with the terms of probation.

There are more than 400 state and federal statutes in the US that allow spiritual treatment through prayer.

Christian Scientists, however, are on trial elsewhere in California, in Massachusetts, and in Minnesota, on similar charges. All of these states have ordinances that exempt parents whose religious beliefs call for spiritual care in lieu of medical treatment.

Last spring, a Florida jury convicted a couple of child abuse and third-degree murder in connection with the 1986 death of a seven-year-old daughter who died of diabetes. These parents are serving a 15-year probation term and have been ordered to provide regular medical treatment for their other minor children.

Florida also has a religious exemption statute.

California's Supreme Court ruled last year that prosecution of parents in connection with the death of a youngster could proceed despite a state statute that exempts them from criminal child neglect if they rely on spiritual healing.

The Assembly Committee on Public Safety now is considering revision of a California statute under which proponents would reduce felony charges against parents to misdemeanor status in the event of the loss of a child.

Spokesmen for the Christian Science church say that Christian Scientists are caring parents who rely on spiritual care because it has been an effective healing process in their lives and the lives of their children.

They consider criminal prosecutions of parents who act in a sincere and dedicated manner as an attack against responsible spiritual treatment and against their church and religious freedom in general.

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