Sunday, February 7, 2010

Death is a civil matter

Parents found guilty in Oregon City faith-healing trial

As if placing one’s faith in one’s creator was not difficult enough, in Oregon City, Oregon it is apparently illegal. Jeff and Marci Beagley were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide for the 2008 death of their sixteen-year old son. Read the article.

I found three interesting, yet disturbing, comments in the online article. First is the warning by Steven Green, director of Willamette University’s Center for Religion and Democracy, that this case sends a signal to the religious community [presumably at large] that their actions will be more scrutinized [by the state than a non-religious community]. A family that chooses a faith path that endorses faith-healing can be held to a higher standard of child care than a more secular one that over-medicalizes their child(ren). These faith-holding parents differ in the court from another parent who sends their child to the doctor, demanding care the child may not need (I am thinking of Ritalin prescriptions or antibiotics for treating the common cold) and that may do more harm than good, because they chose to place their faith with a different authority. I understand the continuous court rulings that beliefs and actions take different legal roads, but I also see a definite pattern of hypocrisy. There are too many examples of questionable parenting (for example) that go unrecognized in the court system even when the result is the death of a child; the parent seems to be saved because they do not profess to a strong sense of faith for their lives.

The second comment that bothered me was that expert testimony of doctors was used by the defense even though the parents did not rely on their medical skill to take care of their child when he was severely sick. As the prosecution attorney offered, this was a “rich irony.” Yet, what other alternative did the defense have? Death, in our society, apparently is a civil matter and not a faith matter. No matter how many faith healers and examples of successful faith healing the defense could have offered as proof that faith healing works, the secular/civil court most likely would not have recognized its relevance. Their son died under their care, not God’s care. It did not help that no one bothered to call 9-1-1 when he died—a repeat in the death of the same parent’s granddaughter three months earlier.

Finally, we are told that in Oregon, parents who offer a religious defense in the death of a child may receive probation instead of a prison sentence. If the state is going to go after parents for their decisions in the death of their child, the state should use the same criterion for all parents. What, after all, does the religious defense do that changes the circumstances? Repeatedly, the courts have ruled that actions fall under a different set of rules. There is no reason, therefore, to slap parents with criminal suit and then offer some a carrot because their actions were based on faith decisions.

I have found that reading comments following articles online incredibly eye opening. The viciousness that people exhibit in their commentary regarding those who rely of faith so strongly is as close-minded as the people they accuse. Is there any difference in the comments following this article and that found against Native-Americans in 1892 when the school superintendent wrote, “their religion is the darkest of superstitions” that inevitably led to a “lack of truthfulness, consistency, and moral consciousness” (Wenger, p. 29)? The conflict between authorities, the state and God, is an old one that surely will not end very soon.


John S. said...

There is a lot going on in this article and many good questions are raised. If we take away all the questions about fairness, parenting and faith and all the comments cited, one question remains; are the parents criminally negligent? Negligence relies on questions of reasonableness. What would a reasonable person do? What is a reasonable response? The argument that the family chose faith-healing over doctors and hospitals, does not work. Faith-healing and science simply don’t weigh the same. Science and medicine are based on observable, testable and reproducible facts, faith-healing is not. If you are a practicing wizard and your child is drowning, you can choose to cast a levitation spell, rather than employ the proven and effective technique of pulling the kid out of the water. However, if your spell doesn’t work, either because magic doesn’t exist or because you are a lousy spellcaster, and the kid dies, you are probably going to be held criminally liable. A reasonable person, whom we may agree is employing reason in some capacity, takes their child to the doctor if the child is sick. This is both in accordance with reason and also within the standards of the community in which the parents in question live. Thus, the issue in this case is not one of religious freedom. The parents are free to practice their religion and exercise their faith, but when that free exercise results in a death, then legal consequences may ensue. The parents are not on trial for their religious beliefs, although it is an easy target for media spin and online commenters. Based on their religious beliefs, the parents made a medical decision in opposition to the decision a reasonable parent would reasonably make. Babies die each year from parental negligence that has nothing whatsoever to do with religion, but each of those parents is guilty of criminal negligence, just like the parents in this case; religion is a red herring.

Lauren P said...

This case is a clear example of a clash between religious freedoms, parental rights, rights of minors, and governmental interests. The state cannot interfere with parental decision regarding the upbringing of their children. For example, the state cannot decide what religion a parent must bring his/her child up following. If and when the state wants to intervene on parents’ rights the state must have a compelling interest to justify it. For example, the state can act when its interest is in protection of the safety or well-being of a child. Therefore, the Beagley’s had the constitutional right to choose what religion to follow. However, the state also has the right to prosecute the Beagley’s because the Beagley’s put their child’s life at risk.

I disagree that a family who chooses a religious following that endorses faith-healing is held to a higher standard of childcare than a more secular one that over-medicalizes their child. All families, no matter their religious beliefs, are held to the same standard of childcare. Thus, despite the fact that may appear that law, faith, and parental duties are inseparably bound (as according to the prosecutor’s argument), the defense attorneys were correct to downplay the religious aspect of this case.

jpeterson said...

I also see this case as being one of the more interesting of the current religious cases. I see it as one of the modern cases that could end up being as defining as the Reynolds v. U.S. in which the courts put parameters, for the first time, around the 1st Amendment. It was in this case that the courts distinguished action v. belief and ruled that the Mormon Church could believe in polygamy but could not act upon it. In the Beagley case again the courts are confronting the action v. belief issue and I wonder if rights are being lost through this case as I too see a sort of close-mindedness. I am not yet sure which side I stand on but I wonder what the difference is between dying under the neglect/mistreatment of a doctor, which happens, and dying in one’s faith?