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Tom Krattenmaker

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Even Religious Freedom Has Limits

Posted: 03/31/11 10:32 PM ET

Does the religious freedom of a small, separatist faith-healing church trump the rights of its members' children to live to adulthood?

The Oregon Legislature is finally saying "no" after the headline-grabbing deaths of three children whose parents belong to the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City. These were children with treatable illnesses: pneumonia, a blood infection, kidney blockage. They received prayers, anointing, the laying on of hands -- but no doctors or medicine. Even in famously tolerant Oregon, the deaths have proved to be too much for an alarmed public and its representatives. In a move that will align Oregon law with most other states, legislators are pushing ahead with a bill that would remove religious conviction as a defense against homicide charges faced by parents who shun medical care for their kids, even at death's doorstep.

With no organized opposition stepping forward, the bill's passage into law seems inevitable. And pass it should. But before the episode fades out of the spotlight, it's worth pausing for a moment to learn what we can from a case that has something valuable to teach about religious rights and their inevitable limits.

What the case demonstrates, in ultrabold print, is that no conversation about religious rights is complete without equal attention to responsibilities -- responsibilities to the community that all religious practitioners bear, and that the Oregon City church has failed miserably to uphold.

The moral of this story is one that runs all through American religious history, manifest in such instances as the Mormon church having to give up polygamy or fundamentalist Bob Jones University ending its ban on interracial dating on pain of losing its tax exemption. Religious freedom is not the only right at stake in the crowded public square. And a religion cannot reasonably expect the public and the law to respect its idiosyncratic ways when it fails to live up to the community's well-considered standards -- such as the idea that children should receive basic medical care when their lives are at stake.

A reasonable approach to faith/medicine

Wherever questions of faith and health venture into the public realm, advocates for the Christian Science church are sure to follow. Unlike the reclusive Followers of Christ, the Boston-based Christian Scientists have long striven to engage the public through their widely circulating publications and the public reading rooms they operate in numerous cities. For decades, the church has promoted the spiritual dimensions of health and lobbied for legal space for their practices to go forward without undue burdens.

But there's a reasonableness about the Christian Science approach that stands in stark contrast to the Followers of Christ; doctors and medicine are options when worse comes to worst. From that proceeds the Christian Scientist position on the Oregon case -- one that has changed, tellingly, after the series of deaths among Followers of Christ children since 2008. The Christian Scientists had gone to bat for the Followers when they faced legislative threats in the past, but this time they are standing down. "With an expectation of fairness comes a responsibility," says Russ Gerber, manager of media and government relations for the church. "There's a duty to practice this type of health care reasonably, especially when it comes to children." Protecting children's lives, he says, "is a standard we should all be held to no matter what means of health care we choose."

His point evokes a broader problem with the national discourse over religion -- the degree to which rights have become an obsession, with far too little said about the responsibilities that have to be an equal part of any serious conversation about religion's place and prerogatives.

Responsibility is essentially what the Oregon Legislature is imposing on the Followers of Christ. Whereas the Followers had previously enjoyed protection from manslaughter prosecution in cases where children died for lack of medical care, the new law means parents can no longer invoke religious freedom in their defense. An earnest attempt to heal children spiritually -- however sincere the belief it will work -- will no longer be enough in the eyes of the law. (The legislation stops short, as it should, from forbidding adult Followers themselves from relying solely on faith healing.)

Couldn't this be seen as an assault on the Followers' constitutionally protected freedom of religion? A cursory glance might suggest "yes," but a more complex view of the situation, and of long-standing Supreme Court jurisprudence, leads to this realization: While freedom of religious belief is absolute, the acting out of said freedom is not -- and, in truth, cannot be if a pluralistic society is going to avoid chaos.

The legal distinction between religious belief and action dates to the Mormon polygamy cases of the 19th century, explains Steven Green, a law professor and director of Willamette University's Center for Religion, Law and Democracy. If you've taken a religious history class, you might know the story: The continued practice of polygamy -- then held by Mormons as crucial to their eternal salvation -- stood at the center of a fierce conflict between the Mormon church and U.S. government in the latter decades of the 1800s, effectively blocking Utah from statehood and forcing prominent Mormons into hiding or prison. Via the Great Accommodation of 1890, the church surrendered polygamy, paving the way to Utah statehood and the broader acceptance of Mormonism into the mainstream of American life.

The line: criminal activity

In an 1878 decision on the Mormons and polygamy, the Supreme Court held -- much like Oregon's Legislature today -- that religious freedom could not justify (otherwise) criminal activity. If it could, the court reasoned, what would stop a church from practicing human sacrifice?

Therein lies important practical wisdom that's worth remembering the next time you hear people shouting indignantly about their rights with little regard for the consequences faced by their fellow citizens of other persuasions -- whether it's a pharmacy employee's "right" to refuse selling legal contraceptives or an ardent secularist's "right" to be free of any exposure to religious expression in public (as in the case of those who would forbid mention of the G-word in the Pledge of Allegiance).

The freedom to believe as one chooses is crucial to the American way, and belief has little meaning if it cannot be acted upon. Even so, as the Followers of Christ are learning the hard way, the right to practice religion must have its limits. Especially when the consequences are life or death for those with no choice in the matter.

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. He is the author of the award-winning book 'Onward Christian Athletes'.