THE Delaware Supreme Court, in a recent ruling, has upheld a state law that allows parents to rely on spiritual healing for their children. Such laws have been the focus of a series of court decisions in several states over the past few years as prosecutors have filed neglect or manslaughter charges against Christian Scientists who relied on spiritual treatment for children who later died. Those cases have resulted in a mixture of convictions, plea bargains, and acquittals.
The Delaware case involved a decision on the mode of treatment for a child before he died. The Christian Science parents argued that state law allowed them to treat their seriously ill 3-year-old through prayer rather than submit to chemotherapy treatments. The parents, whose identities the courts have kept confidential, had appealed a Sept. 12 Family Court ruling awarding limited custody of the boy to the state.
The parents' lawyer, Yosef Riemer, says the parents originally consented to surgery when the child was diagnosed with a bowel obstruction. Several days after the surgery, doctors told the parents they had diagnosed cancer and recommended chemotherapy. But after doctors explained the dangerous side effects of the proposed treatment, the parents decided it was unlikely to heal the child, and opted for spiritual healing instead, Mr. Riemer says.
The state Division of Child Protective Services took the case to court, charging failure to provide medical care constituted neglect. The Family Court judge held that by permitting surgery, the parents had waived the protection of a law that provides that a child is not neglected if treated by spiritual means ``in accord with the tenets and practices of a recognized church....''
In overruling the lower court, the state Supreme Court cited three factors: the proposed chemotherapy was itself life-threatening; the procedure was invasive, especially as the state would place the child outside the family during treatment; and the proposed treatment had a 60 percent chance of failure.
The court found that ``the recognized state policy that the good faith religious beliefs of [the] parents, the tenets of their faith, and the course of spiritual means to be applied are entitled to respect....''
Nathan Talbot, speaking for the Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, says this ruling ``illustrates that courts can appreciate and respect the laws that make room for spiritual healing.''