State Senate against spiritual defense for murder

SALEM — The Oregon Senate voted Monday to drop faith healing as a legal defense to murder after repeated deaths of children in a local church community.

The Senate voted 25-5 to approve the measure. It was drafted largely in response to the 2008 deaths of children among members of the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City, who rely on spiritual treatments instead of medical care.

"The bottom line is that children in Oregon ought to be seeing the kind of health care they need to live, thrive and survive," said Republican Sen. Bruce Starr of Hillsboro, who sponsored the bill.

Under the measure, prosecutors can seek first-degree manslaughter or murder charges against parents whose children died because they were treated solely with faith.

An Oregon City couple that belongs to the church stands trial this week on criminal mistreatment charges for failing to seek medical care for their infant daughter, now 11/2;-year old. Jury selection begins tomorrow in the case of Timothy and Rebecca Wyland, according to Greg Horner, chief deputy district attorney of Clackamas County.

Two other couples from the church have gone to trial. In both cases, the sick children weren't taken to a doctor but were instead anointed with oil while the family prayed.

Jeff and Marci Beagley were convicted last year of criminally negligent homicide in the 2008 death of their teenage son and sentenced to 16 months in prison.

Raylene and Carl Brent Worthington were found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter in the death of their 15-month-old daughter. But Carl Brent Worthington was convicted on a lesser charge of criminal mistreatment and served two months in jail.

Attorney Mark Cogan, who represents Timothy Wyland, declined to comment on the bill or to discuss specifics in the case. Cogan also represented Carl Brent Worthington.

The families are members of a small Oregon church that has roots in Kansas but is now based in Oregon City. The church's small cemetery, not far from the end of the Oregon Trail, has row after row of headstones marking children's graves.

A listed phone number for the Followers of Christ Church was continuously busy Monday.

The bill expands a 1999 law that eliminated faith healing as a defense from some charges of manslaughter, criminal mistreatment and nonpayment of child support.

It is designed to apply rules equally to all parents whose children die because they didn't get medical care. Current law makes it tougher to convict parents who do not provide a child with medical care for religious reasons than those who don't for reasons such as neglect.

"These crimes are based upon the premise that a parent has a legal duty, and they're failing to provide, whatever it is, medical care or physical care," Horner said. Horner, who represented the government in the two previous couples' cases, said the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office is supporting the measure.

Republican Fred Girod of Stayton spoke strongly against the bill, calling it "lousy policy." He said it needed to be reviewed for the cost and impact on the budget.

Minimum penalties for certain cases considered murders would go from 120 to 300 months in prison and cost an additional $21.88 per day for a temporary prison bed, according to the fiscal impact report.

If the measure becomes law it means a person could face the same level of punishment as "someone who goes into a liquor store and shoots someone in a robbery," Girod said. "This is going to the extreme."

The Oregon House unanimously approved the bill in March with a 59-0 vote. It will now return to the House for vote on changes that would make the bill take effect immediately.

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