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Child's Death Ruling Raises Legal Specter for Christian Science

December 15, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

A few weeks ago, the California Supreme Court decided that a young Christian Science mother in Sacramento named Laurie Walker could be prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment because she didn't get medical care for her 4-year-old son who subsequently died of spinal meningitis.

This is the first time in the 100-year history of Christian Science that the state of California has chosen to prosecute a parent on such grounds--and only the second time it has happened since the turn of the century in the whole nation. Thus the final disposition of the Walker case will have a significant impact not just on Christian Scientists but on all American parents who choose to deal with their children in ways other than the accepted societal standard.

Nowhere will this be more true than Orange County, which has one of the highest concentrations of Christian Scientists in the country. It also has a special poignancy to me because I was raised in a Christian Science family and in turn raised my own children in this faith. Although I'm no longer active in Christian Science for reasons important to me individually, I have a strong sense of the distress being felt by those who practice it daily as a way of life.

Over the past few days, I've talked with Al Carnesciali--the official church spokesman in Orange County--and several local Christian Science practitioners to try to assess the impact of the California decision. There is concern that, whatever the ultimate result in the Walker case, a great deal of confusion has already been spread among Christian Scientists who are caught between a desire to be obedient to the law of the land and the certainty that they prefer spiritual healing within the confines of their own families.

One practitioner told me: "This has made people afraid. Patients for whom Christian Science has always worked are scared about using it for their children."

Another said: "This has driven a wedge in the trust Christian Scientists have always felt that they are free to practice their religion."

Why, after so many years of protection under the laws of both the nation and the state of California, are Christian Scientists suddenly being prosecuted for practicing their beliefs? (Two other similar cases are presently pending in California and three more--one of them featured on TV's "60 Minutes" last week--are pending in other states, apparently awaiting whatever precedent may be set by the Walker case.)

Three primary reasons were suggested. The first is that it feeds the political ambitions of the public officials bringing the cases. Second is the lack of understanding of what spiritual healing--as opposed to faith healing--is and what it has accomplished. And third--and probably most important--is our current preoccupation with child abuse and neglect that has apparently prompted a re-examination of Christian Science treatment for all children, even though the church contends that no laws are being broken and that the parents are emphatically using what they consider the most effective possible treatment.

The last point needs to be understood by those who applaud the Supreme Court decision without knowing or caring about the other side. Christian Science parents are not ignoring problems of their children. They are simply using a method of treatment that is not acceptable to society under certain circumstances. Critics find invalid the argument that medicine is neither prosecuted nor castigated for its well-intentioned failures, while Christian Science must perform perfectly--a clear case of double standard. Medicine, they say, is the best--and only--legitimate way to treat disease, and therefore its failures are unfortunate but acceptable. And anyone who doesn't agree should be forced by society to comply.

The state has long rejected that position in relation to Christian Science but has now apparently chosen to test it in court. And the ripples of the Walker case extend far beyond Christian Science. In the abstract, it goes to the heart of a question that has long been debated in this republic: What are the parameters of a legitimate interest on the part of the state in protecting its citizens?

But in particular--in the homes of thousands of Orange County residents--it raises doubt and fear where none existed. As one practitioner said: "This kind of reaction has never happened before. Our privacy has been invaded. We're under glass, being watched, and a lot of people are frightened."

It seems to me that in fairness, their position merits a second, deeper look by those who would say, "It's about time."

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