Expectations of Religious Privilege

Today, we have 3 stories of parents who try to use religious privilege to absolve themselves from responsibility in the deaths of their children.

In Canada, we have the case of “M” and her sister in Alberta who were  allegedly starved and beaten by her parents. “M” was resuscitated by paramedics at here home, but suffered extreme brain damage and has no real hope of surviving if taken off life support.  Her sister is expected to make a full recovery.

Her parents are now facing charges of aggravated assault, criminal negligence causing bodily harm and failing to provide the necessities of life. They are alleged to have beaten and starved the girl.
While the parents have signed a “do not resuscitate” order if the girl’s heart should stop, they have asked that any treatment that would keep their daughter alive be continued.

The father claims that his religious beliefs prevent him from consenting to the treatment being stopped.

As a devout Muslim and loving father I find it unthinkable to agree to limit or withdraw medical treatment for (the girl). I ask that the Court honour my beliefs that the ultimate course of (the girl’s) life not be made by doctors limiting or withdrawing treatment,” he said.

As of today, the Supreme Court of Alberta has refused to overturn a lower court’s decision to remove the child from life support. An appeal was immediately launched to the Supreme Court of Canada, but there is no guarantee the court will hear the case.  Since the children were rescued, the parents have been in jail, facing charges of aggravated assault, criminal negligence causing bodily harm and failing to provide the necessities of life. If “M” dies, the charges will most likely be upgraded to reflect her death.

It may be cynical of me, but it is difficult to see these legal battles as anything but an attempt to  use their religion to mitigate their potential punishment. This religion they are leaning on now, didn’t prevent them from abusing their children. Life is sacred only on their terms. At least the courts aren’t buying into their excuses.

Case #2 and 3 come from the northwester US, both involving members of the General Assemblies and Church of the First Born  a Christian sect that believes in the power of faith over the power of medicine.

Russel and Brandi Bellew, from Oregon, each pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges of criminally negligent homicide, as part of an agreement with prosecutors.

The Bellews — who are members of a church that generally believes in using prayer instead of modern medicine to treat illnesses — avoided jail in the plea deal, but will spend the next five years on probation. During that time, they will be required to contact a doctor whenever any of their six surviving children suffer from an ailment that causes them to miss school for more than one day….

The Bellews were arrested in February after an autopsy revealed that 16-year-old Austin Sprout had died two months earlier from an infection that resulted from a ruptured appendix. The teen was Brandi Bellew’s biological child and Russel Bellew’s stepson.

Had the couple been convicted of manslaughter, they each would have faced a mandatory minimum prison sentence of more than 6 years. I don’t really expect the Bellews to abide by the order. Both parents lost their previous spouses because of their beliefs. They both dies of easily treated infections. The most bizarre comment comes from one of the Bellews’ non-church member neighbours: “the parenting abilities here are just great”. Yep, letting your child die from a treatable disease is terrific parenting.

Next, Gregory and Garnet Swezey of Carlton, Washington were on trial on charges of second-degree murder in the death of their 17-year-old son. In 2009, Zachery died of a ruptured appendix three days after began to suffer, but it took 3 years for prosecutors to put a case together. In the end,

JaLea Swezey pleaded guilty to third-degree criminal mistreatment and received a suspended sentence. Greg Swezey was charged with second-degree criminal mistreatment and his case was continued for two years.

Ultimately no jail time, and their 4 years old daughter remains with them.

These are not the only 2 instances involving the General Assemblies and Church of the First Born. More from the Registerguard.

In the mid-1990s, a Brownsville couple who attended the Church of the First Born became the first people in Oregon to be prosecuted for following their religious beliefs rather than taking their ill child to a doctor.

Loyd and Christina Hays initially faced charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the death of their 7-year-old son, who had a treatable form of leukemia.

A Linn County jury in 1996 convicted Loyd Hays of criminally negligent homicide, but acquitted his wife of all charges. A judge sentenced Loyd Hays to probation in the case.

In 1999, a new state law eliminated spiritual healing defenses against charges of second-degree manslaughter, first- and second-degree criminal mistreatment and nonpayment of child support.

Last year, Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a bill into law that removed the defense for all homicide charges. The new law came on the heels of several high-profile faith healing cases involving members of the Followers of Christ church in Oregon City.

In one case, a judge handed down a 75-month sentence to the parents of a premature baby who died without medical intervention just hours after being born.

Another case involved a 16-year-old boy who died from complications related to a urinary tract obstruction. His parents — Jeff and Marci Beagley — were each sentenced in 2010 to 16 months in prison after being convicted by a jury of criminally negligent homicide.

As a parent, my first instinct was always to protect my children from any harm, perceived or real. Two of my children have asthma, and I made more than one trip to the ER at inconvenient times. I cannot imagine staying at home not doing everything in my power to help them.

Using faith as an excuse to allow your children to die, or as an excuse to prevent punishment is inexcusable.

In the US, several churches that are suing the Federal Government to allow them to opt out of health care coverage for their workers, specifically those involving women’s reproduction and birth control. If they win, there is really nothing to prevent church groups such as the  General Assemblies and Church of the First Born from exempting themselves from all forms of health care other than prayer.

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2 Responses to Expectations of Religious Privilege

  1. Pingback: Update on “M” | PEI Curmudgeon's Blog

  2. Pingback: Protecting Children with Vaccinations | PEI Curmudgeon's Blog

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