Oregon Senate Votes to End Faith-Healing Defense for Parents

Following the tragic and preventable deaths of children whose parents believed faith rather than medical care would cure their ailments, the Oregon Senate voted earlier this week to eliminate "faith-healing" as a legal defense and allow prosecutors to seek murder charges against parents who deny their children medical care for religious purposes.

The 25-5 vote comes the same week that a couple from Oregon City stand trial on charges of first-degree criminal mistreatment for refusing to seek appropriate medical care for their 18-month-old daughter who had a serious eye problem and nearly went blind until her vision was saved by court-ordered treatment. The parents belong to the Followers of Christ church, whose adherents "embrace faith-healing and the power of God to treat disease and medical conditions," with predictably horrific results:

Two other couples from the church have gone to trial [since 2008]. In both cases, the sick children weren’t taken to a doctor but instead were anointed with oil while the family prayed.

Jeff and Marci Beagley were convicted last year of criminally negligent homicide in the 2008 death of their teenage son and sentenced to 16 months in prison.

Raylene and Carl Brent Worthington were found not guilty of second-­degree manslaughter in the death of their 15-month-old daughter. Carl Brent Worthington was convicted on a lesser charge of criminal mistreatment and served two months in jail. [...] The church’s small cemetery, not far from the end of the Oregon Trail, has row after row of headstones marking children’s graves.

Under the measure passed by the Senate, the state would soon be able to charge such parents with first-degree manslaughter or murder. The Oregon House unanimously approved a similar measure in March and is expected to pass the Senate version very soon. Once the bill is signed by the governor, it will immediately become law.

Oregon's removal of "faith-healing" exemptions would (obviously) be a step in the right direction, but the proposal concerns only the penalties faced by adults after they have committed child abuse for unjustifiable religious reasons. The Secular Coalition for America supports the removal of "faith-healing" loopholes from criminal statutes, but we also advocate protective laws that would allow local governments to intervene and provide medical care before children are harmed by their parents' dangerous religious beliefs.

In order to protect children as best we can, SCA has been working to remove a similar "faith-healing" loophole from the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which provides federal funding for state child protection services, but still includes several religious exemptions. You can read more about CAPTA on our issues page here.


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