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Faith Healing Exemption Gets Scrutiny In Wash. Legislature

Christian Scientists who treat their sick children with faith healing instead of medical care have special protection under Washington law. But that could soon change.

Lawmakers are considering whether to repeal the Christian Science exemption following the death of a teenager in north-central Washington.

The teenager died at home of a burst appendix in 2009. He parents, followers of a church that believes in faith healing, were put on trial.

But because they weren’t Christian Scientists, they couldn’t use that as their defense. The trial ended in a hung jury.

“In that case the court was able to really avoid whether it had to instruct the jury specifically because it wasn’t actually a Christian Science church that was involved,” said Tom McBride, who heads Washington’s Association of Prosecutors.

But McBride says that case points out the inequity of referencing a single religion in the law. He now supports a measure that would remove the Christian Science exemption in Washington statute.

In 2011, Oregon lawmakers made it so parents can no longer claim spiritual treatment as a defense in child neglect cases. A similar measure was introduced in Idaho this year. Both are in response to the deaths of several children associated with a particular church. 

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.