An Oregon couple belonging to a controversial religious sect have been charged with manslaughter for relying solely on faith rather than seeking medical care when their premature child grew ill and died after being born at home.
Shannon and David Hickman, members of controversial Followers of Christ Church, insist they have done nothing wrong and were only remaning true to their faith, which places heavy emphasis on faith-healing. Authorities disagree and have charged the couple with second-degree manslaughter for allowing David, their baby, to die.
In addition, their case is only the latest involving members of the troubled sect being accused of endangering the welfare of their children.
Born two months premature at the couple's home, David lived for only nine hours before dying. It was apparent that he needed medical care – he was having trouble breathing and looked ashen and listless, The Oregonian reported. But instead of taking David to the hospital, the boy's father anointed him with oil and prayed.
"Why didn't you call 9-1-1 at that moment of crisis?" prosecutor Mike Regan asked.
"Because I was praying," Mr. Hickman said.
Within minutes, David was dead.
During cross-examination, Mr. Hickman held steadfastly to his belief that only prayer could have saved David, despite assertions from pediatricians who said there was a 99.9 percent chance that David would have survived if given the proper medical care.
"Do you still believe nothing could have been done to save your son?" prosecutor Mike Regan asked.
"Yes, I still believe that," Hickman answered.
According to an earlier article by The Oregonian, the defense attorneys argued that the Hickmans could not have known about David's condition and are simply being singled out for their religious beliefs.
The defense pointed out that the DA waited a year to file charges against the Hickmans, indicting them only after the arrest of fellow Followers of Christ Church members, Timothy and Rebecca Wylan, who were convicted of criminal misconduct and sentenced to 90 days in jail for not taking their infant daughter to a doctor for a growth that almost destroyed her left eye.
Defense attorneys said that the back-to-back arrests of the two couples were part of a campaign to inflame public animosity toward the church.
Ofer Raban, professor of law at the University of Oregon, said that the Hickmans are not constitutionally protected from denying David medical care.
"The government can’t force an adult to accept medical care,” Raban told The Christian Post Wednesday. "But the government does have the ability to protect minors."
Raban pointed out several laws that are designed to protect children against abuse and neglect, which support the idea that religious beliefs are not necessarily a protection from the government when it comes to providing medical care to a minor.
"The First Amendment does not exempt parents from providing life-saving medical care to a child due to religious beliefs," Raban said.
However, local laws can provide greater religious freedom, Raban noted.
In fact, Oregon has some of the nation's most liberal laws when it comes to the intersection of religious freedom and medical care. But the Followers of Christ's involvement in the injury and death of several children over the years has started changing some of those laws.
As a result of the Wylands' conviction, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber signed a law that removed legal protection for parents who claim religious freedom as an excuse to rely on "faith-healing" instead of medical care for their children's medical needs.
The law also eliminated "spiritual treatment" as a defense against homicide charges.
Dr. Seth Asser, a pediatrician and children's rights activist who is highly critical of faith-healing churches, claims the Followers of Christ Church and the Church of the First Born, based in Oklahoma, together are responsible for more child deaths than any other group.
According to the Tulsa World, Asser estimated that between 12 to 24 American children die each year because their parents chose to pray in place of seeking medical care. That is about one percent of all child-abuse deaths.
"It's not a big number, but unlike a lot of the others, these are entirely preventable," Asser said.
In a study conducted by Asser and Rita Swan, president of CHILD, Inc, an organization that seeks to end child abuse through religious or cultural practices, it was determined that out of 172 children who died because of religion-based medical neglect, 140 of them would have had a 90 percent chance of survival.
Eighteen of those children would have had a 50 percent change if given proper medical care.
"Most were ordinary illnesses that no one dies from - appendicitis, pneumonia ... - and many of them died slow, horrible deaths, without the benefit of (pain-relief) medicine," Asser said.
Swan told CP that the Hickman case is just one of several other child abuse through religion cases that occur every year because of lenient religion laws.
“Idaho is a terrible example, Swan said. Not only does Idaho allow parents to refuse medical care for their children based on religious belief, she says, but state laws also do not require autopsies unless a crime was committed, which hinders opponents of that state's laws to prove the their danger.
Religious groups that eschew medical help are a tiny minority in the United States, according to Thomson Mathew, dean of the Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions, described such groups as misguided.
"They are very much in the fringe today," Mathew told Tulsa World
"In many cases, they are not theologically trained, and they teach that dependence on medicine demonstrates a lack of faith in God. That puts pressure on people," he said.
Rockwall Sevy, whose parents were also Followers of Christ members, was 14 years old when he died of pneumonia. Instead of seeking medical care as his health deteriorated, Sevy's parents only prayed.
According to KATU.com, Idaho statute 18-1501 says a parent who "chooses...treatment by prayer...shall not...have violated the duty of care to such child."
Canyon County Prosecutor Bryan Taylor says there is nothing he can do to stop parents from using prayer instead of medicine.
"If they don't want to have their children go to a doctor, as long as they haven't caused the injuries, then we don't really have a leg to stand on in exploring criminal charges," Taylor said.
Swan believed the statute is a clear example of child abuse.
"A 14 year-old should not have to die of pneumonia," she said.
Despite the possibility of several children around America dying every year because of their parents' religious beliefs, Swan said that changes are occurring.
She was active in getting the Oregon senate to unanimously pass House Bill 27-21, which "Eliminates reliance on spiritual treatment as defense to certain crimes in which victim is under 18 years of age."
As the bill was being discussed on the floor, a woman who grew up with members of the Followers of Christ Church told the state senate asserted that people in her neighborhood and high school knew that the church had a reputation of letting children die for over 50 years.
"They passed the bill and declared it an emergency so it would take effect right away," Swan said. "And it was an emergency. It was a 50-year emergency."