OREGON CITY, Ore. — For more than half a century, children in the Followers of Christ church have died for lack of medical care, a pattern lawmakers and prosecutors have worked over the past decade to change.
But as the case of two parents who were found “not guilty” July 23 illustrates, it is no simple matter.
Jurors found Carl and Raylene Worthington not guilty of second-degree manslaughter in the death of their 15-month-old daughter, Ava. On a misdemeanor charge of criminal mistreatment, the jury convicted the father and acquitted the mother.
As the Worthington case showed, juries can be reluctant to convict deeply religious, loving and otherwise law-abiding parents who withhold medical attention on religious grounds. In addition, a conviction is no guarantee that determined believers will change.
“The deterrent value of a conviction and jail time is probably going to be minimal,” said Steven Green, a law professor at Willamette University, and director of the school’s Center for Religion, Law and Democracy.
“It sounds like these people (members of the Followers of Christ church) are extremely committed, extremely devout and not about to change their ways.”
Jurors spent a full week crafting a verdict. They negotiated a thicket of values — religious freedom, parental rights, the rule of law — and then cleared their own path to justice.
In explaining their mixed verdict, the jury forewoman emphasized that the Worthingtons did not intentionally cause their daughter’s death, even though intent was not a requirement for a guilty verdict on either charge.
“Regardless of what the instructions were, a lot of people on the jury believed there was supposed to be intent,” said Ken Byers, one of two jurors who believed Carl Worthington was guilty of manslaughter. “Some people couldn’t clear that hump.”
After the verdict was announced and Byers learned more about what the church teaches, he said he wished he had pushed harder for conviction. “There was a sense on the jury that we needed to send a message that this is not acceptable behavior,” Byers said. “I’m not sure the message is loud enough.”
Oregon lawmakers have also been conflicted about parents who rely on faith healing at the expense of their child’s life.
In 1995, legislators introduced legal immunity to Oregon’s homicide statutes for parents who assert a religious defense in the death of a child. In 1997, they expanded legal immunity to include manslaughter. Then, after a Followers of Christ child died in 1998 of untreated diabetes, legislators reversed course, but only by a half step.
In a compromise law passed in 1999, legislators left some religious exemptions — such as for murder or in sentencing considerations — but eliminated them in cases of second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and first- and second-degree criminal mistreatment.
The Worthington case became the first test of the 1999 legislation.
Although the law prohibits the Worthingtons from using a religious defense against the manslaughter charge, jurors considered the Worthingtons’ beliefs in finding that the couple acted reasonably in relying on faith-healing rather than attempting to revive their daughter when she stopped breathing or calling 911.
A key question remains unanswered: Will prosecution or the guilty verdict soften the Followers of Christ’s stance on medical care for their children?
“There are some people who … believe that adherence to their understanding of the Bible is much more important than any human relationship,” said Nancy Hardesty, a Clemson University professor of religion who studies faith-healing practices. “They see this as an affirmation that they are following God and other people aren’t.”
The Followers of Christ church board of directors does not grant media interviews. Questions submitted through the church’s attorney went unanswered.
Carl and Raylene Worthington’s families have belonged to the Followers of Christ for generations, and their beliefs are deeply tied to the church’s strict adherence to faith-healing rituals — prayer, anointing with oil, laying on of hands, fasting — to treat illness and misfortune.
Another jury will hear a similar case next January when Raylene Worthington’s parents, Jeff and Marci Beagley, face charges of criminally negligent homicide in the death of their 16-year-old son, Neil, who died a few months after Ava.
While the law can punish, it cannot force the deeply devout to alter their ways, say those familiar with faith-healing devotees. A conviction “is not going to be a deterrent,” said Shawn Peters, a University of Wisconsin teacher and an expert on law and religion.
“It’s a kind of martyrdom. It’s a badge of honor. We have individuals who really don’t care about temporal earthly punishment,” said Peters, author of “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law.”
“Things will change,” he said, “when the parents decide to read the Bible a little bit differently … in a way that allows prayer to be complemented with secular medicine.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Mayes writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.)