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Detroit court to consider charges against church in child case

The Circuit Court for Wayne County, Mich., is expected to consider a defense motion for summary judgment today in a case brought against The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Massachusetts, and two Christian Science practitioners.

A Michigan couple seeks damages for alleged neglect in events preceding the death of their son in 1977.

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The motion for summary judgment was filed Aug. 22 and, if sustained, could lead to dismissal of the case. If denied, a jury trial will proceed before Judge Richard C. Kaufman.

The plaintiffs, Douglas and Rita Swan, are former members of the Christian Science Church. When their 16-month old son became ill, they employed first one then another Christian Science practitioner to pray for him before taking the boy to a hospital, where he died a week later.

Two and a half years later, the couple filed suit alleging that the practitioners were negligent in failing to report the child's illness to local health officials and that they misrepresented to the Swans that the child could be healed through Christian Science treatment. The Swans also claim that Christian Science is a health care system and that the Christian Science Church should be held responsible for not properly training practitioners to diagnose and report severe illness.

Church spokespersons point out that for more than a century, healing through prayer has been successfully carried on in behalf of adults, children, and families around the world as part of the religious practice of Christian Science. They emphasize that Christian Science is not essentially a ''health-care system'' but is an established Christian denomination whose theology and ministry include spiritual healing.

In outlining its position, the Church states that since the sole function of practitioners is providing treatment through prayer, it does not and should not ''train'' them to make medical diagnoses. Practitioners do not, therefore, make such diagnoses and are not legally empowered to do so.

Nor is it the practitioner's role to report suspected communicable diseases, the Church claims. This responsibility, it is held, lawfully belongs to parents, who alone have the legal and moral responsibility of deciding whether to seek medical diagnosis and treatment for their children.

Basic to the case is the plaintiffs' contention that they could not fulfill this responsibility because they were ''coerced'' by Church pressure into turning to Christian Science rather than to medical treatment for their son.

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In public statements, Mrs. Swan has claimed that ''the Church exerts enormous pressure on members to stick with Christian Science'' and that if a member ''turns voluntarily to medicine'' the Church ''makes it very clear you are deserting your religion and your church will desert you.''

Representatives of the Church deny this, pointing out that as parents the Swans were at all times free to make their own decisions in behalf of their child.

The Church further emphasizes that the Swans were acting as free moral agents in requesting Christian Science prayer and treatment for the child, just as they were when they took him to the hospital and, the Church further notes, as Mrs. Swan had been when she chose to have surgery for herself nine months earlier.

Church representatives assert that as a matter of ethics, the Church does not dictate to its members about choice of treatment and that allegations about ''coercion'' factually misrepresent the case.

According to Nathan Talbot, manager, Christian Science Committee on Publication, a Church information office, ''Most Christian Scientists would not even recognize the practice of their religion in the way the case has been generally represented.''

''The death of any child is tragic, but no one would condemn the whole of medicine on the basis of the sad death of a child under medical care,'' says Talbot. ''Neither should an entire denomination be condemned on the basis of an atypical incident, especially when the facts surrounding it are so in dispute.''

According to the plaintiffs, their suit is part of a larger campaign to restrict drastically the right of parents to have purely spiritual means of treatment for children.

The Church, however, points to the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which protects freedom of religion. Since the practice of Christian Science consists solely of prayer, the Church holds that it falls under this constitutional protection.

In considering a motion on the case some months ago, Judge George T. Martin of the Wayne County Court said: ''It may well be that at trial much of plaintiffs' proffered evidence will be found constitutionally inadmissible because its admission would result in the jury becoming excessively entangled in questions of the truth or falsity of religious doctrine.''

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