Parents Charged in Faith Healing Case

The prosecution of an Oregon couple who allegedly tried to heal their dying son with prayer has focused attention on laws that, in some cases, allow parents to treat their children with faith.

Jeffrey Dean Beagley, 50, and Marci Rae Beagley, 46, pleaded not guilty on Friday 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.

The Beagleys belong to a religious sect known as the Followers of Christ Church, which rejects medical treatment and, instead, relies on prayer. Several relatives who were with Neil Beagley at the time of his death told police that he had refused medical care, according to the Gladstone, Ore., police.

Picture of Jeffrey Beagley, Marci Beagley and their church.Play

Marci Beagley declined to comment when reached at her Oregon City home, Monday. Attorneys for the Beagleys could not be reached for comment. The district attorney handling the case declined to comment.

The Beagleys are among a handful of parents around the country, including their daughter and son-in-law,who are currently facing criminal charges related to spiritual healing.

Their case has focused attention on some laws that let parents rely on prayer to heal their children. Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo Law School, who writes about religious issues, said the case may test Oregon's religious freedom laws and may prompt other states to re-examine their spiritual healing laws.

"There was a time when we were willing to permit these children to be lost, but there are increasingly more prosecutions and lawsuits," she said. "Children should not be permitted to be the testing ground for their parents' faith or secular views if it's going to result in their death."

More than 40 states make some religious exception in child abuse laws for parents who practice spiritual healing, though the laws vary widely in scope, according to Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, a nonprofit that opposes such laws.

Criminal defendants have argued that those exceptions to child abuse laws for spiritual healing should prevent the state from throwing parents in prison when a child dies from lack of medical care.

Dale and Leilani Neumann, a Wisconsin couple whose 11-year-old daughter died from complications of untreated diabetes, argued in recent court papers that reckless homicide charges should be dismissed because they conflict with state laws on child abuse, which allow treatment through prayer.

State supreme courts that have considered the issue have reached differing conclusions. At least one court, in Minnesota, has ruled that manslaughter charges for the death of a child whose meningitis went untreated, needed to be dismissed because the child's parents relied on state child abuse laws that allowed spiritual healing.

Eighteen states have religious defenses to at least some felony crimes against children, according to Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty. Some states, such as Iowa and Ohio, provide a defense to manslaughter and child endangerment for faith healing. Arkansas makes spiritual healing a defense to capital murder charges.

Stephen Lyons, a Boston lawyer who has defended parents who practice faith healing, said, whether parents are prosecuted should depend on the circumstances of each individual case.

"The case comes down to what did parents know and when did they know it," he said. "Parents who lose a child due to illness which they don't recongize as being serious, who don't practice spiritual healing, are rarely, if ever, prosecuted. The problem is that parents who honestly say they engaged in sprirtual healing are never given the benefit of the doubt."

About 10 percent of people surveyed in 2004 said they participated in a prayer group for their own health, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, though a much smaller number rely on prayer exclusively.

A 1998 study in the journal Pediatrics found that 172 children died without receiving medical care because of religious reasons from 1975 to 1995. Of those, 140 children had a greater than 90 percent chance of survival if they had been treated, according to the study, conducted by Rita Swan, director of Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, and Dr. Seth Asser, formerly of the pediatrics department at the Univesrsity of California, San Diego.

Asser said his research shows that more than 60 children whose parents are members of the Followers of Christ Church died between 1955 and 1998, which he said was roughly four times the Oregon state average.

Neil Beagley's niece, 15-month-old Ava Worthington, died in March from an infection after her parents treated her with prayer. Her parents face trial in January on second degree manslaughter and neglect charges.

Oregon law offers some religious defense protections for parents who try to heal their children with prayer. In the mid-1990s, legislators created religious belief defenses to homicide and manslaughter. The exceptions to manslaughter and criminal mistreatment charges were eliminated in 1999, after a series of widely reported deaths involving the Followers of Christ.