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No legal protection for kids in faith-healing families:
why most states sanction religion-based child sacrifice


By MarieAlena Castle
Communications Director, Atheists For Human Rights

Rita Swan
Rita Swan

Respect for religious beliefs is such that protecting the "deeply held beliefs" of parents takes precedence over protecting their children from injury, illness and death as a result of those beliefs. The presentations of Rita Swan highlight the suffering and death inflicted on children in faith healing families and the lack of legal protection for them.

Rita and her husband Doug co-founded Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc (CHILD) in 1983 following the death of their 18-month-old son Matthew from meningitis. The Swans, then Christian Scientists, had been led to believe that illness does not exist, that it is an illusion, and that its seeming manifestation can be eliminated by prayer augmented with a strong mental refusal to recognize its existence. The Swans were supported in this belief with the knowledge that almost all state statutes legitimized faith healing as health care.

When the real world prevailed and their son died, the Swans were jolted into reality, recognized faith healing for the irrational fantasy it is, and determined to prevent other child deaths by getting religious exemption laws repealed. Faith healing deaths of children occur regularly throughout the country. In all cases where the parents are prosecuted, they base their defense on the state's religious exemption. These exemptions, enacted into law at the request of Christian Science lobbyists, can be a death sentence for children.

CHILD has had a long and lonely struggle because it essentially questions the validity of particular religious beliefs and of prayer itself. Unlike other humanitarian causes, which liberal religions and progressive groups usually get behind, support from that end has been marginal to nonexistent. Pediatric-care organizations and individuals have been the primary supporters.

An exception was the recent award given to Rita Swan by the 2,000-member National Association of Counsel for Children. The NACC said, "CHILD has become a powerful force in persuading states to repeal statutes that exempt parents from prosecution for murder, manslaughter or abuse and neglect if they rely solely on spiritual prayer to heal their sick children."

"Due in large part to CHILD's efforts, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Dakota, Hawaii and Oregon have all removed laws which provided exemptions from prosecution to parents who fail to provide medical care for their sick children based on religion."


Christian Science lobbyists got the exemptions for their church; other faith healing cults just ride along. Christian Scientists are nothing if not clever. They first ask for a basic exemption as an accommodation to their beliefs and legislators see no harm in it. (Why they don't ask what the church wants to do that they need an exemption from prosecution has never been clear.) Then the church goes to the health insurance companies and, citing the exemption statute that legitimizes their "healing" practices, they ask to be covered for reimbursement. Then it's back to the legislators, reimbursement statement in hand, to ask for additional exemptions on the basis of being legitimized by the insurers. And so it goes.

But that's not all. Care in a Christian Science nursing home (which provides only the most basic custodial care) is fully covered by Medicare, while the same care in other nursing homes is not covered, so residents must pay the bill themselves, amounting to several thousand dollars a month. All this has been supported by politicians of every persuasion because they assume religion is good and it's politically incorrect to question it.

And so they protect a religion that is nothing but a spinoff of a carnival act. Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy was a partner with one Marcus Quimby in a 19th century carnival act based on mind-over-matter stunts. When Quimby died, Eddy turned his methods into a religion based on the notion that disease is imaginary. Just combine prayer with denial and disease disappears. If it doesn't? The victim had too little faith and, besides, doctors don't cure everyone either.


On May 9, 1989, 11-year-old Ian Lundman, of Independence, Minnesota, died of diabetes. The Hennepin County medical examiner ruled the death a homicide because Ian's mother and stepfather (Kathleen and William McKown) had not sought medical treatment for Ian. As Christian Scientists, they relied solely on prayer to treat Ian. (The prayers were covered by Mr. Mc-Kown's employer-paid insurance.)

The McKowns were brought to trial and testified they knew about the religious exemption and understood it to mean the law recognized prayer as medical treatment. Hennepin County District Court dismissed the case, citing the exemption. The Minnesota Appeals Court and the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the ruling.

This writer began an attempt to repeal the statute, first getting then-Rep. Phil Carruthers and Sen. Jane Ranum to introduce the bills, then lobbying on behalf of CHILD. It was a long, hard, five-year struggle. The cause was as simple as it was just: All we wanted was repeal of Minnesota's faith healing statutes that say faith healing is health care and permit members of faith healing cults to let their children die rather than seek medical treatment.

The hearings in the House and Senate were lengthy and painful. We brought in the medical examiner who described the horrible condition of Ian's body. We brought in Ian's biological father, Doug Lundman, who gave an emotionally wrenching account of the loss he suffered. We brought in a pediatrician who explained how medical science could easily have saved Ian.

We brought Rita Swan from Iowa to testify about faith healing practices. We brought Joni Clarke from South Dakota, a former member of End Times Ministries, whose baby died from faith healing.

We brought Sue McLaughlin from North Dakota who, as an infant, was denied treatment for a metabolic disorder by her Christian Science parents. As a result, she is mentally retarded and only 4 feet 2 inches tall. Then-Sen. Bill Luther helped her testify about her medical neglect and about how she watched a brother she loved dearly die of prayer "treated" asthma. She begged the legislators to repeal the exemption. Many of them saw the suffering of these victims and supported us. Others saw only the sacred cow of religious belief and supported the Christian Scientists.

What came of all this was that the legislators saw the exemption was a bad law but couldn't bring themselves to repeal it. In the end, all the facts, all the wrenching testimony of victims, all the expert medical and legal testimony, all the intensive lobbying could not achieve repeal-although we did achieve a mangled but somewhat serviceable semi-repeal.

Minnesota now has a law that requires faith healing parents to report their own medical neglect of their children so social service people can step in and save the kids. (What this means in terms of Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination remains to be seen.) If a child is seriously harmed as a result of failure to report, it is a gross misdemeanor. If a child dies, it is a felony.

We also won repeal of the religious exemption from treatment for metabolic disorders in newborns. This is a condition that, when treated with medication, is completely curable. When not treated, it causes mental retardation and other severe handicaps.

Still unaffected are laws that exempt children in faith healing families from mandated pre-school health screening examinations. This, of course, has the potential of exposing the children of more rational parents to who-knows-what communicable diseases.

However, with the exemption language still in the statute the Christian Scientists can continue to con health insurance companies into reimbursing their "practitioners" for saying magic words.


If our repeal bill could have stood entirely on its merits, we would have won a complete victory. We had the votes. We won in the House Judiciary Committee 15-5. We won on the House floor 101-30. We had the votes in the Senate.

But we were blocked in the Senate by Allan Spear (now retired) and John Marty. Both chaired committees our bill had to pass through. Both adamantly opposed repeal because they did not want to "prosecute well-meaning parents." They could not understand that the exemption created a problem rather than solving one by validating faith healing, thus encouraging parents to pray their children to death.


The unavoidable need to question religion automatically put us at a disadvantage. Rita Swan, a liberal religionist, was accused of religion bashing as a result of her testimony in which she gave a calm, straightforward, textbook-like description of Christian Science beliefs. Just describing the beliefs was seen by some legislators as an attack.

Sen. John Marty went to at least one senator in an apparent attempt to undermine our position by telling her we are atheists., thus supposedly destroying our credibility.

While talking with Sen. Spear and noting how children were placed in harm's way by the exemption, Spear suddenly lashed out with, "Oh you!. I know you! You're atheists! You're just here to bash religion!" Apparently, Spear could not comprehend how atheists could have human sensibilities, especially when they were directed at protecting innocent kids rather than unverifiable and demonstrably absurd supernatural beliefs.