Mapping Faith’s Legal Limits

An Oregon case spotlights the legal conundrum of charting the legal limts of religious faith and practice in America. The facts are as follows:a jury has convicted an Oregon couple of criminally negligent homicide after the death of their 16-year old son. They are members of the Followers of Christ Church, and as such they do not turn to doctors when they or their families are ill. The parents testified that they thought their son’s symptoms were nothing worse than the flu or a bad cold. To their grief, the young man died.

The criminal charges, and the conviction, were based on the idea that the State has the power and the duty to make sure that children are not physically endangered (in this case through withholding medical care) by their parents’ religious beliefs and practices.

The Followers of Christ Church certainly sounds like an odd group, and their attitudes toward medicine seem sadly mistaken, even dangerous to their members. But the insertion of state authority into such matters worries me even more. Lutherans, after all, are also a religious minority in the United States–like everybody else! And the legal reasoning which permits infringement of religious liberty based on “compelling government interest” produces precedents of government interference to which there are no obvious limits. The Oregon case may wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal, and then we would see the influence of prior judicial decisions such as Employment Division v. Smith (the famous “peyote case” of 1990).

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