WHEN Thomas Jefferson described religious freedom as ''the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights,'' he could not have imagined that the time would come when American citizens would be forced to pay ruinous damages for exercising it.
But that is the result of the Supreme Court's decision last week not to review the case of McKown v. Lundman. That decision let stand a Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling upholding an award of $1.5 million to the father of 11-year-old Ian Lundman, who died in 1989 after his mother, stepfather, and a Christian Science practitioner tried to use prayer to heal his diabetes.
The mother and stepfather are devout Christian Scientists, who, after Ian complained of stomach pains, began to pray for him, as their religion prescribes.
Eventually, they enlisted the services of the practitioners, who assisted in the prayers. Despite these efforts, the boy slipped into a coma and died.
When medical experts testified later in court that insulin would have saved the child, the judicial fate of the defendants was evidently sealed.
But should matters have been so simple? Never before have Christian Science practitioners been held liable for trying and failing to heal the sick. Christian Science is not some bizarre new cult. Nobody claims that the boy's family was malicious or irrational. They meant Ian no harm. Like parents everywhere, they made the best choices they could, relying on their religious faith to help guide them.
Majority believes in prayer
Before one rushes to say that anybody who relies on prayer to cure a serious medical condition deserves to be punished, one should look at the data. According to an ABC News/Gallup poll taken last December, 4 out of 5 Americans believe that prayer can cure diseases.
Nearly half say that they themselves have been healed by prayer.
Some medical experts may deride this overwhelming majority as kooky, but there is scarcely a religion in America whose followers do not pray for deliverance from illness. And a majority of states have statutes explicitly recognizing a parent's right to try to heal sick children through faith.
The death of any child is a tragedy - but it is not a greater tragedy because it occurs as devout family members pray rather than as noble physicians struggle. Although the matter was once in dispute, no one questions any longer the right of an adult to refuse, on religious grounds, standard medical treatment for an illness.
When a child rather than an adult is involved, the right legal question is not what the decision should be but who should have the power to make it. Quite properly, America has long respected the right of the family to make religious decisions for children - a freedom older than the Constitution and one that the document did nothing to disturb.
From time to time, we hear objections to this broad parental freedom. In 1972, for example, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas dissented from Wisconsin v. Yoder, which allowed the Old Order Amish to take its children out of school after eighth grade in spite of compulsory education laws. The Justices accepted the Amish argument that mandated schooling for their young people might destroy the Amish way of life. Justice Douglas responded that the children rather than the parents should make the decision.
Like most parents, I would make a different decision than Ian Lundman's parents did. But a family's religious freedom should not be limited by what other families would do.
Without freedoms of the kind that Justice Douglas disparaged, religious communities whose values differ sharply from the mainstream might be unable to survive, for survival often depends on the ability to raise children in an atmosphere that celebrates rather than demeans the faith of the parents.
Our self-righteous certainty that we know all the answers might lead us to decide that religions whose values are too different from ours do not deserve to survive.
This claim was common in the early years of this century, when a number of state legislatures, moved by nativist sentiments, outlawed private schools as a way of eradicating what they considered ''foreign'' religions - principally Judaism and Roman Catholicism.
The Supreme Court put a stop to that mischief in 1925, when it ruled that parents have a constitutional right to make educational choices for their children. How sad that seven decades later, our supposedly conservative court could not move itself to say something similar about medical care.
One might object that when the life of a child is at stake, the state's interest in intervening is unusually strong. I would agree, as I suspect most Americans would, so long as the state is able to intervene in a way that does not actually discourage the parents from following the teachings of their faith.
Under one compromise that several states have adopted, Christian Science practitioners are required to inform state medical authorities when they begin treating a child. This gives the state the chance to intervene and (as has happened in many cases) make medical decisions against the wishes of the parents.*
Should the state use this power wisely and sparingly, the lives of some children will probably be saved, but no parents would be punished for religious devotion.
Supreme Court took a wrong turn
Like all compromises, this one offers less than total victory to each side. Like all good compromises, it preserves the essence of each side's position. What the Minnesota courts did instead - award sufficient damages to drive the family into bankruptcy - was a sufficient affront to religious freedom that groups like the moderate Baptist Joint Committee and the National Association of Evangelicals urged the justices to take up the case.
By refusing to hear the family's appeal, the court has left the door open to all sorts of mischief. Within days after the court's decision, newspapers ran articles about a four-year-old Seattle boy whose mother is sending him off to live with Buddhist monks in Nepal, because she and the monks believe that the boy is the reincarnation of a famous and respected lama. If, upon reaching adulthood, the boy decides that he is not the lama after all, if he decides that his life has been ruined, could he sue his mother for exercising her faith? The answer, at least in Minnesota, is evidently yes.
By refusing to intervene in McKown v. Lundman, the Supreme Court has reinforced a societal message that has grown depressingly common: It is perfectly OK to believe in the power of prayer, so long as one does not believe in it so sincerely that one actually expects it to work - a peculiar fate indeed for our ''most inalienable'' right.
[* Editor's note: No state asks Christian Science practitioners to report when they are requested to treat children. Some states do require persons, including parents, to report to state authorities in cases where a child is suspected of having a contagious disease or when serious harm to a child's health may be involved.]