- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

DENVER The painful death of a 13-year-old diabetic girl in Colorado has reignited the debate over where to draw the line between religious freedom and child neglect.

The state legislature is considering a bill that would repeal the religious exemption to the state's child-abuse law, making it easier to prosecute parents who deliberately withhold medical treatment in favor of prayer or faith healing.

The measure comes in the wake of a statewide uproar surrounding the Feb. 6 death of Amanda Bates, who died of complications from juvenile diabetes. Her parents, Randy and Colleen Bates, who belong to the General Assembly Church of the First Born in Grand Junction, Colo., refused to seek a doctor's care for Amanda, citing their belief in the power of prayer to heal her.

The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Kay Alexander, argues that the repeal is needed to "protect Colorado's children" from the current law, which says no child who receives prayer as a "recognized method of religious healing" is considered neglected.

"[The bill] does not disregard the right to pray for healing or religious freedom," said Mrs. Alexander, a Republican. "It does stop faith-based medical neglect."

But Christian Scientists, who have emerged as the bill's leading opponents even though Amanda was not a member of their church, argued that the proposal would have a chilling effect on their freedom to worship.

"If this passed, then I would lose some of the protection I had. I would be afraid to practice my religion," said Christian Scientist Marian English, who raised her three now-adult children without the aid of doctors.

Christian Scientists have defeated two previous attempts in the past 12 years to strike the religious exemption, but overcoming the public outrage over Amanda's death promises to be their most difficult hurdle yet. Since 1974, 11 First Born children have died or been stillborn in Colorado after receiving no medical care.

Mesa County Coroner Robert Kurtzman, who has ruled the death a homicide, said Amanda would be alive today if she had received medical care for what he described as an "easily recognized and treatable disorder." Instead, he said, she died a "slow and agonizing death" during which her body wasted away to skeletal proportions.

Amanda is the second child the Bates family has buried a younger brother died of what was ruled as sudden infant death syndrome and Mesa County District Attorney Frank Daniels has vowed that she will be the last. His office is now considering whether to file charges against her parents, and the Colorado District Attorneys Council has endorsed the repeal proposal.

"As of now, the state of Colorado is endorsing a law which injures and even kills children," said Mr. Daniels.

Colorado lawmakers have tried twice to repeal the religious exemption, but a recent hearing showed why they have yet to succeed. At a hearing before the House Criminal Justice Committee last week, opponents of the legislation from the Church of Christian Science packed the room, outnumbering the bill's supporters 4 to 1.

Despite the church's strong showing, the committee approved the measure 8-3. The bill is now pending consideration before the full House.

Christian Science has no affiliation with the cluster of faith-healing sects that pepper that state's rural Western Slope, including the Church of the First Born, the Church of Jon and Judy and the Disciple Fellowship Church. Christian Scientists also deny they practice faith healing, insisting their prayer-based method is simply an alternative form of health care. They note that both the Internal Revenue Service and most insurance companies recognize Christian Science healing.

But Christian Scientists fear that any attempt to clamp down on the faith-healing traditions of other churches will put their members in legal jeopardy. At the hearing, a long line of Christian Scientists testified that their techniques are every bit as effective as conventional medicine, if not more so.

"We have in my opinion a better method of healing than anyone else, and it's good and it's working," said Denver lawyer Dwight Hamilton, a Christian Scientist. "It's above and beyond me to see how anyone could feel I'm a child abuser just because of my religion."

Christian Scientists also pointed out that none of the half-dozen Colorado children who have died from lack of medical care since the exemption became law belonged to their church. "In 12 years, you can't show me where Christian Science has done harm to children in Colorado," said Christian Scientist and Denver lawyer Tom Dennison.

He drew distinctions between the Church of the First Born and Christian Science. "There have been many cases in the church we talked about today as doing definite harm. There have been no example of harm brought by Christian Science."

Committee members noted that Christian Science children have died or suffered in other states, but Christian Scientists countered that no method is foolproof. "I can't tell you Christian Science treatment has never failed, because there have been instances, but you can't tell me medical science has never failed," said Mr. Dennison.

The problem with current law, say prosecutors, is it's ambiguous. Mr. Daniels said there is broad disagreement among the state's district attorneys over whether parents who cite the religious exemption can be charged.

"I know one [district attorney] who didn't file charges because he said it was a waste of time," said Mr. Daniels. "I know another one who does. I know another who files charges only if he has a court order."

He added later: "It's really not fair. The law should be crystal clear. But the biggest part is that the state of Colorado is sending the wrong message. Parents shouldn't be allowed to withhold medical treatment."

Siding with the prosecutors is former Christian Scientist Rita Swan, whose son Matthew died in 1977 after she and her husband relied on the church's prayer for healing. She said that followers are pressured by the church leaders to eschew medical care, and that they back their arguments by citing the religious exemption.

"As Christian Scientists, we were always told that the state had given us these religious exemptions and the reason was that public officials agreed that prayers could heal as well as medical treatment," said Mrs. Swan, who founded Children's Heath Care is a Legal Duty after her son's death. "When parents hear that the state allows this, they not only think it's legal, they think it's safe."

Christian Science leader Robert Doughtie denied that church parents are under any duress. "There's no dogmatism, no ritualism. Christian Science parents are free to seek medical treatment whenever they want," he said.

The Church of the First Born, on the other hand, encourages its members to shun medical care. Even so, the 100-year-old church, whose members number about 285 families in western Colorado, has been praised by neighbors for its hard-working, law-abiding congregation.

Even the Bates family has been described as a happy one in which the children are cared for and well-fed. The family has 12 remaining children, and Mrs. Bates is pregnant with another child.

"You get the sense that people at this church are good people," said Mr. Daniels. "I remember a coroner once described them as the kind of people you'd like to have as neighbors, except they let their children die."

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