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Court Upholds Award Against Spiritual Healers But Church Freed Of Judgment In Death Of Diabetic Child

Knight-Ridder

The first civil jury verdict against Christian Science spiritual healers became final Monday when the Supreme Court refused to review a $1.5 million award against parents and religious care givers who treated a diabetic Minnesota boy with prayer.

The boy died.

At the same time, the justices left the Christian Science Church itself free of a $9 million judgment imposed by a jury to punish the church.

Still, several other large churches said the outcome threatens the freedoms of all religions because it permits “clergy malpractice” suits in Minnesota.

The decision “leaves four individuals to shoulder the extraordinary burden of paying $1.5 million in damages for practicing their religion … in good faith,” said Michael Born, spokesman for the Boston-based First Church of Christ Scientist.

But James H. Kaster, a Minneapolis lawyer for the boy’s father, said the legal lesson of the case is that “exclusive reliance on prayer treatment instead of medical care for a seriously ill child can give rise to liability.”

The conflict between religious freedom and the government’s duty to protect the lives of children originated in Independence, Minn., where 11-year-old Ian Lundman complained of stomach pains on May 6, 1989.

His mother, Kathleen McKown, a lifelong Christian Scientist, prayed for him in accordance with her religious belief in spiritual healing without medical intervention.

The next day, when the boy did not improve, McKown obtained help from Mario Tosto, a Christian Science practitioner, and Quinna Lamb Giebelhaus, a Christian Science nurse.

On May 9, three days after his initial complaint, Ian died.

In the 1993 trial of a suit filed by Douglass Lundman, McKown’s ex-husband and Ian’s father, doctors testified that the boy’s disease easily could have been treated with insulin.

The appeals court left intact $1.5 million in damages against the boy’s mother and stepfather, William McKown, together with Tosto and Giebelhaus.

But it struck down a jury assessment of $9 million in punitive damages against the Christian Science Church, which teaches that conventional medicine interferes with spiritual methods.

Churches aren’t exempt from damages intended to punish them, the court said, but in this case “the risk of intruding … upon the forbidden field of religious freedom is too great.”

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