Faith Healing Parents Assert Religious Rights

A Clackamas County, Ore., couple accused of letting their infant daughter die by relying on prayer, rather than medicine, today asked that the charges be dropped, arguing that they infringe on their freedom of religion and their right to raise their children in their own way.

Carl Worthington, 28, and his wife, Raylene, 25, belong to a church that believes in faith healing, and police said that, instead of going to a doctor when their 15-month-old daughter Ava got sick, they turned to prayer.

The infant girl died March 2 from bacterial bronchial pneumonia and an infection, both of which could have been cured with common antibiotics, the medical examiner said.

The Worthingtons face charges of second degree manslaughter and criminal mistreatment charges. They surrendered to police in March, but were subsequently released after each posted $25,000 bail.

The motion filed in Clackamas County Circuit Court by the Worthingtons' lawyer today claims that their prosecution is a violation of the rights guaranteed them under both the state and federal constitutions.

"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 said. "Further, Mr. and Mrs. Worthington urge that this prosecution contravenes their fundamental right to raise their children without interference by the State."

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Jan. 7, 2009.

The Worthingtons are members of the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City, that has a history of shunning medical care in favor of faith healing.

Another Oregon City couple who belong to the same church face similar charges, after their son -- who was Ava Worthington's uncle -- died in June.

Jeffrey Dean Beagley, 50, and Marci Rae Beagley, 46, pleaded not guilty Oct. 3 to criminally negligent homicide charges in the death of their son, 16-year-old Neil Jeffrey Beagley.

Neil died June 17 from complications of a urinary tract blockage, according to medical examiners. The condition, which doctors say is easily treatable, caused kidney and heart failure.

A decade ago, the church received national attention after ABC News affiliate KATU-TV in Portland, Ore., reported that the state medical examiner believed approximately 20 children, whose parents belonged to the church, had died from untreated illnesses that were curable.

For more of KATU's coverage of the case, click here.

After that story broke, the Oregon state legislature changed the law to bar defendants, in most cases, from claiming their religious beliefs prevented them from seeking medical help.

According to the Worthingtons' motion filed today, their case is the first application of that revised statute.

Though the revised law removed the so-called "spiritual healing defense," there is still a provision that allows judges to give parents a lighter sentence, based on their beliefs.

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