THE US Supreme Court yesterday let stand without comment a $1.5 million civil suit against four Christian Scientists from Minnesota related to the 1989 death of an 11-year-old boy from what a medical examiner reported was diabetes.
The Supreme Court decision lets stand the most damaging legal precedent in a state court to date against the practice of spiritual healing. But it also, at least for now, forecloses a further erosion of the rights of religious minorities by the high court - a possibility opened up by theSupreme Court in its 1992 ''peyote'' decision restricting the free exercise of religion (Employment Division v. Smith).
The Minnesota case arose from a Court of Appeals decision in that state last April to award $1.5 million in damages to Douglass Lundman, the biological father of Ian Lundman, whose mother and stepfather resorted to spiritual healing through prayer for Ian, rather than conventional medicine.
While the Minnesota courts refused to uphold criminal charges against the Christian Scientists, the appeals court did rule that the parents, practitioner, and nurse in the case were negligent and hence punishable.
In a statement to the press, a Christian Science Church spokesman said, ''The refusal of the Supreme Court to review this case leaves four individuals to shoulder the extraordinary burden of paying $1.5 million in damages for practicing their religion....'' The official, Victor Westberg, went on to say the legal decisions were ''injustices, which we had hoped the United States Supreme Court would have seen fit to correct.''
The Supreme Court also yesterday refused to consider reinstating $9 million in punitive damages against The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, awarded to Mr. Lundman by a Minnesota lower court in 1993.
The Minnesota appeals court ruling in April, which threw out the $9 million award and reduced the damages against the Christian Scientists from $5.2 million to $1.5 million, nonetheless created a negative precedent for the practice of Christian Science, since it implicitly stated that freedom of belief doesn't extend to conduct.
Freedom of religion challenge
The four Christian Scientists sought to have the Minnesota court decision overturned on the grounds that the award violated the free exercise of religion. They are Kathleen McKown, the boy's mother, stepfather William McKown, Mario Tosto, a Christian Science practitioner, and Quinna Giebelhaus, a Christian Science nurse.
When the Christian Scientists filed the Supreme Court appeal, Douglass Lundman filed a cross-petition against the church, hoping to reinstate punitive damages, and reverse the appeals court decision that the Christian Science church was protected in this case by the religious freedom clauses in the US Constitution.
In November, a coalition of Christian churches, including Baptist, Mormon, Roman Catholic, and others, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the four Christian Scientists, asking it to review and overturn the appeals court's wrongful death award.