SANTA ROSA, Calif. — When 8-month-old Natalie Middleton-Rippberger first fell ill that November, her worried parents sought what they considered the very best help available. They turned to God.
As the feverish baby grew sicker, Mark Rippberger and Susan Middleton hired a Christian Science practitioner to pray over their youngest child. But Natalie's condition only seemed to worsen.
By the seventh day, Natalie's eyes were unfocused and her back was stiff. Her parents still prayed. By the 10th day, the baby was wracked by convulsions, her tiny fists clenched and her breathing labored. Her exhausted parents remained at her crib around the clock, praying for her to get well.
A second practitioner was summoned to their Healdsburg, Calif., home.
Just before dawn on the 15th day, Natalie died in her father's arms. An autopsy revealed meningitis, a disease doctors say simple antibiotics almost certainly would have cured.
The First Church of Christ, Scientist does not use the word "death" to describe the end of Natalie Middleton-Rippberger's short life, or the failure of its methods to save her. Instead, Christian Science calls it a "loss."
But the state of California calls it felony child abuse. Now Mark Rippberger and Susan Middleton are on trial here for manslaughter, facing up to four years in prison if convicted.
Their case is one of six currently in courts around the country involving Christian Scientists who relied on faith healing to save their children, and on religious exemption statutes drafted by their own church to save themselves. Three of the cases--all meningitis deaths--are in California.
The sudden surge of prosecutions against a respected, 110-year-old religion after a hiatus of two decades is raising provocative questions about First Amendment rights, child abuse laws, the medical profession, the politics of religion and the immeasurable powers of faith itself.
"We're going to retry 'Inherit the Wind' all over again," declares David Mackenroth, the Sacramento attorney defending Natalie's parents. "They're putting Christ Jesus on trial for quackery."
David Dunn, the assistant Sonoma County district attorney prosecuting the couple, fears that the six known cases represent but a fraction of the actual child "losses" under Christian Science.
"This," he warns darkly, "is Jonestown in slow motion."
On advice of their attorneys, the accused parents refused to discuss their cases, fearing that any statements they make might be used against them in court.
"It's all based on ignorance," is the only thing William Hermanson, a Sarasota bank vice president, would say after a Florida jury returned a guilty verdict in the death of his 7-year-old daughter, Amy, whose diabetes was treated by prayer alone. Hermanson and his wife, Christine, are to be sentenced Friday.
"Everybody has the right to religious beliefs," said prosecutor Deno Economou. "We're talking about religious practices, and the line there is when you endanger the life of a child."
"If praying is deemed criminally negligent," counters Middleton-Rippberger attorney Mackenroth, "that's a pretty hefty decision for society."
Whether the flurry of charges amounts to criminal prosecution or religious persecution is a question that has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which earlier this month declined to block the prosecution of Laurie Walker of Sacramento, whose 4-year-old daughter died of meningitis after her mother relied on prayer to cure her. The Walker case is now expected to go to trial this fall.
The remaining three Christian Science cases also are likely to come to trial later this year:
--In Paradise Valley, Ariz., John and Catherine King are charged with felony child abuse for the June 5, 1988, bone cancer death of their 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Ashley King. According to prosecutor K. C. Scull, the girl's parents relied solely on prayer to heal a leg tumor that ballooned to 41 inches in circumference and fractured her thigh in two places during her 7-month illness. By the time a visiting teacher notified authorities and Ashley was examined under court order at a hospital, the cancer was terminal, Scull said. "If it had been treated from day one, doctors say she would have had a 60% chance of survival," he said.
Defense attorney Bob Hooker argues that the Kings had reason to believe they were protected by religious exemption statutes in Arizona and describes the spate of Christian Science indictments as the result of "prosecutorial boredom." He also blames pediatrics associations, which are lobbying for repeal of religious exemptions and passage of laws that would state clearly that parents must seek medical care for seriously ill or injured children.
"They are charging around on a white horse," Hooker said. "Basically, they feel threatened by alternative forms of treatment and are doing it for economic reasons."