The Oregon couple who chose prayer over medicine to heal their infant daughter asked a judge Wednesday to dismiss criminal charges against them, arguing their right to religious freedom.
Carl Brent Worthington and his wife, Raylene, have both pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminal mistreatment in the death of their 15-month-old daughter Ava.
The infant girl died March 2 of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection that could have been treated with antibiotics, according to the state medical examiner’s office.
The couple belongs to the Oregon City's Followers of Christ Church, which believes in faith healing and has a policy forbidding its members from using traditional medicine or seeking professional medical care to treat illnesses.
A motion filed in Clackamas County Circuit Court by the Worthington's lawyers on Wednesday asked the judge to drop the charges, contending that they infringe upon their freedom of religious worship.
"Mr. and Mrs. Worthington maintain that their prosecution contravenes their right 'to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences,' as guaranteed by the Constitution of the State of Oregon and the Constitution of the United States," the motion stated.
"Further, Mr. and Mrs. Worthington urge that this prosecution contravenes their fundamental right to raise their children without interference by the State."
Another couple from the same church, Jeffrey Dean Beagley and his wife, Marci Rae, also face criminal charges in the death of their son. They face negligent homicide charges after 16-year-old Neil Beagley died from a kidney and heart failure as a result of a urinary tract blockage, which could have been prevented by the insertion of a catheter, according to medical examiners. The teenage boy, a relative of Ava, died on June 18, just three months after Ava's death.
The Followers of Christ Church came under fire in the late 1990s after reports by local news outlets about several faith-healing deaths of children. The Oregon Legislature introduced a bill in 1999 that eliminated Oregon's "spiritual-healing defense" in cases of second-degree manslaughter, first- and second-degree criminal mistreatment and nonpayment of child support, the Oregonian reported.
The Worthingtons' case may be the first test case since the 1999 law.
In the motion filed Wednesday, the couple's attorneys argued that the manslaughter charges should be dismissed because the 1999 legislation "was enacted as a result of hostility toward the Church of which Mr. and Mrs. Worthington are lifelong members."
Lawyers for the couple also said the term "adequate medical care" was too vague and should not be applied to the case.
"The Worthington family’s decision to select religious 'medical care' is protected in the same way Oregon must protect a Chinese-American family’s right to use Eastern medical care, as that of a Canadian-American family to rely on homeopathic care, a Native American family’s right to rely on traditional Indian medicine, and all the other diverse people who inhabit Oregon," the motion argued.
Clackamas County prosecutors have until Friday to file a response.
A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Jan. 7, 2009.