Death by Faith Healing: a Church/State Separation Dilemma

Sixteen-year-old Austin Sprout died of a commonly preventable illness when his parents declined medical treatment on faith grounds.

The sovereignty of religion in the United States is a thorny issue when it comes to state powers. But most Americans can agree that there are lines that even the Church cannot cross.

The problem is that sometimes that realization comes too late.

Sixteen-year-old Austin Sprout is the most recent victim of such religious transgressions. Oregon’s Register-Guard recently reported that Sprout’s parents declined medical care for their son, opting instead for prayer to ensure his recovery from an undisclosed but commonly preventable illness. He died in spite of their faithfulness.

Sprout’s father, Brian, reportedly died of sepsis five years ago when the family refused medical treatment for his medical injury, opting for faith-based healing. The family attends The General Assembly Church of the First Born, a congregation the Huffington Post notes is “known for their practice of faith healing.”

From the Huffington story:

The couple also face charges of manslaughter in the second degree, according to the Associated Press.

Religion News Blog notes that, in response to multiple preventable deaths resulting from “faith healing,” Oregon’s legislature passed House Bill 2721 into law in June, hoping to eliminate “reliance on spiritual treatment as defense to certain crimes in which victim is under 18 years of age.”

Most of us could agree, I expect, that it’s the responsibility of government to help ensure that children do not suffer from abuse or undue harm because of their religious environment. Child-molesting religious leaders should be charged just like anyone else, and parents who don’t use available means to keep their child from dying should suffer the consequences.

But the question is where we draw the line.

What about churches that use the fear of hell to coerce young people to believe? Should the state be legally bound to charge them with emotional abuse? What about religions that practice fasting? Might some government bodies consider this neglect? Not to mention religious practices like circumcision. So how much freedom should the church and individuals have to mold a child’s life according to their faith practice, and when is the government obligated to step in and say “enough”?

Before deciding where you sit with this, consider a foundational tenet of Christianity: worship of the Suffering Servant, Jesus. He subjected himself to forty days without food, alone in the desert. If we’re to live like him, to what degree should parents be allowed to teach and enforce self-denial or other types of austerity on their children?

And how about Christ’s example of putting himself in harm’s way for what he believes is right? Am I violating the law by taking my children to a protest where things get violent? And if so, how is this different than the Russells putting their son’s fate in God’s hands because of their belief in the healing power of prayer?

I am by no means condoning the family’s decision, and I support the state’s decision both to charge the parents with manslaughter and to temporarily remove the Russells’ other children from their custody. My intention in presenting these rather extreme examples is to press the boundaries of the law’s reach, which in many cases is based upon an ever-changing set of values established by majority rule.

Both Church and state are, in theory, focused on preserving the well-being of those they are bound to serve and protect. What exactly we mean by “preserving well-being” is hard to say. I wish it was easier to spot, particularly before the damage has been done.

At the moment, however, such cases of abuse and neglect seem strangely similar to former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s now-famous quote about how he determined the line at which sexually explicit content becomes legally obscene. When asked how he defined obscenity, he responded, “I know it when I see it.”

Must we first see it to guard against it? and whose subjective value system should be used to make such a subjective determination?

It’s a debate that is far from over.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://nitecaravan.blogspot.com/ Br. Jay

    Ugh!  This is so sad.  

  • kittylu

    The safety of a minor should always trump any religious practice. You couldnt do what they did to a dog. This actually reminds me of the child who got cancer and was taken away from his mother because she refused to allow him to be radiated. They were
    members of the Native American Church but religious practice was not enough to keep him in the home.

    • http://www.christianpiatt.com/ Christian Piatt

       The question that lingers, though, is where the line is.

  • http://www.LifeAfterCaregiving.WordPress.com/ Linda Brendle

    You raise a lot of valid questions. Unfortunately, as you point out, there are no easy answers. 

  • Hermes60

    This is an issue of CONSENTING ADULTS


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