THE Minnesota Appeals Court has thrown out a $9.15 million punitive-damages award against The First Church of Christ, Scientist in the 1989 death of an 11-year-old boy whose parents resorted to Christian Science treatment through prayer instead of conventional medicine.
But the three-judge panel let stand a $1.5 million award against the boy's mother and stepfather, Kathy and William McKown, and against a Christian Science practitioner and nurse.
The child, Ian Lundman, died of what a medical examiner concluded was diabetes. His biological father, Douglass Lundman, filed a civil lawsuit after the Minnesota courts refused to allow criminal charges to be brought against the McKowns.
The appellate court ruled 2 to 1 that the Christian Science Church's practice of spiritual healing is protected by the United States Constitution and that the church did not act in ''deliberate disregard'' of the boy's rights. ''We do not grant churches and religious bodies a categorical exemption from liability for punitive damages,'' the court wrote. ''But under these facts, the risk of intruding -- through the mechanism of punitive damages -- upon the forbidden field of religious freedom is simply too great.''
The Hennepin County jury that made the award in 1993 found that the practitioner, nurse, and the public-affairs representative of Christian Scientists in Minnesota were ''agents'' of the church, thus making the church liable for their portion of the damages as well as its own.
But the appeals court said the fact that the practitioner and nurse are listed in The Christian Science Journal, the church's official organ, does not make them agents of the church. It further held that the public-affairs representative, known as the Committee on Publication, and a Christian Science nursing facility had not assumed responsibility to care for the boy and thus were also not liable.
In upholding the award against the others, however, the judges wrote that the McKowns had a duty to protect the child from harm and that the practitioner and nurse should have overruled the parents' wishes and sought medical help.
''While we are heartened by the judicial panel's overturning of unwarranted punitive damages, we are nonetheless disappointed with the decision against the parents, practitioner, and nurse,'' said Victor Westberg, spokesman for the Boston-based Christian Science Church. ''The rulings create a dangerous precedent for citizens of Minnesota of all faiths who provide care for children, and they merit review by the Supreme Court of Minnesota,'' a church statement said.
Mr. Lundman's lawyer told the Associated Press he would recommend that his client appeal.