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Jonathan Turley -- Courts' sentencing shouldn't sanction faith-healers' neglect

While defendants generally show contrition for their actions, the Neumanns remained unrepentant about not calling emergency personnel until after Madeline stopped breathing. Leilani Neumann said: "I do not regret trusting truly in the Lord for my daughter's health." Dale Neumann told the court: "I am guilty of trusting my Lord's wisdom completely. . . . Guilty of asking for heavenly intervention. Guilty of following Jesus Christ when the whole world does not understand. Guilty of obeying my God."

In Oregon, the Followers of Christ church has been cited for injuries and deaths associated with its faith-healing beliefs for decades. In one 10-year period, estimated Larry Lewman, an Oregon state medical examiner, the church experienced 25 child deaths related to faith-based medical neglect. A recent case involved Ava Worthington, a 15-month-old who fell ill in 2008. Rather than call doctors, her parents -- Carl Brent Worthington and Raylene Worthingon -- allowed a simple cyst on her neck to grow to the size of a softball as they anointed her with oil and administered small amounts of wine, according to testimony at the trial. She died of a blood infection and pneumonia.

Judge Steven L. Maurer, a circuit court judge in Clackamas County, Ore., said he would "stand by my assessment that this was wrong, wrong, wrong. This was an unnecessary tragedy." However, the prosecutor asked for six months in prison, half the maximum sentence for misdemeanor criminal mistreatment. Maurer gave Carl Brent Worthington two months in jail and five years' probation. Despite the record of deaths and injuries at their church, the Worthingtons were allowed to keep custody of their 5-year-old daughter and a new baby that was coming in a matter of months. They needed only to promise to bring them to a doctor for scheduled checkups.

Now another trial is pending for the family: Raylene Worthington's parents, Jeff and Marci Beagley, were charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of their 16-year-old son, Neil Beagley. He died in 2008 from a urinary tract blockage that could have been treated with a minor surgical procedure. In cases such as this, in which courts confront repeated faith-based fatalities in a single religious community, the legal system risks becoming a facilitator, if not an accessory, to the crimes through lenient sentencing.

These cases have thrived in a gray zone left by the Supreme Court decades ago. In 1944, in Prince v. Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease, or the latter to ill health or death." The court, however, did not expressly forbid the use of faith as a mitigating factor in sentencing -- a matter left to the states. Not only does this use place children at risk, it results in the troubling image of courts favoring religious parents over nonreligious parents in a nation committed to the separation of church and state.

The key to the use of such a defense is that it must involve belief in a divine being, not a particular lifestyle. In 2007, Jade Sanders and Lamont Thomas of Atlanta were convicted of malice murder and given life sentences for the death of their 6-week-old child. The defense attorneys cited the couple's strict vegan lifestyle to explain why they fed their newborn son a diet of soy milk and organic apple juice, though during the trial Sanders said she had also breast-fed her son, who died in an emaciated state at 6 weeks, weighing just 3 1/2 pounds. The prosecutor and court had no qualms in treating this couple's beliefs as a poor excuse for murder, calling a nutritionist and vegan expert as a witness to show that a vegan diet can be safe for an infant. The prosecutor even told the jury: "They're not vegans, they're baby-killers."

The next test of the faith-based defense will be in Philadelphia, where prosecutors last month charged Herbert and Catherine Schaible in the January death of their son, Kent Schaible, 2, from bacterial pneumonia. His parents and other adults prayed around him, practicing faith-healing for two weeks without seeking medical assistance. Then they called a funeral home. The couple were charged with involuntary manslaughter and other related crimes.

Denying children critical care may be divinely ordained for some parents, but it should not be countenanced by the legal system. Until courts refuse to accept religion as a mitigating factor in sentencing in such cases, children will continue to die, neglected as an article of their parents' faith.

Jonathan Turley is a professor of public interest law at George Washington University and a practicing criminal defense lawyer. He'll be online to chat with readers about this piece on Monday at 1:30 p.m. ET. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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