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California high court orders trial for Christian Science parent

A ruling by the California Supreme Court raises questions about the reach of state statutes accommodating those who rely on prayer for healing children. The court ordered a trial for the mother of a child who died of meningitis while under Christian Science treatment. Barring further appeal, Laurie Walker of Sacramento will be tried before a state jury for ``involuntary manslaughter'' and ``felony child endangerment.''

Despite a 1976 amendment to the California penal code that recognizes ``treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone'' in the care of children, the state high court said this provision does not preclude prosecution in cases of extreme illness resulting in death.

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``The Legislature has determined that the provision of prayer is sufficient to avert misdemeanor liability for neglecting financial responsibility to furnish routine child support,'' Justice Stanley Mosk wrote for a unanimous court.

He continued, however, that ``this hardly compels the conclusion that in so doing the Legislature intended to create an unqualified defense to felony manslaughter and child endangerment charges to those parents who continue to furnish prayer alone'' to a gravely ill child in lieu of obtaining medical treatment.

Nathan Talbot, Committee on Publication for the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, points out that ``the court did leave open a way for legislative changes that would be needed to accommodate parents in this type of situation.''

Mr. Talbot, a church spokesman, also says that, although the Nov. 10 decision allows a jury trial in child-death cases, it still provides an ``important support'' to spiritual healing.

``It is deeply significant,'' he explains ``that the court has acknowledged that a specific statute recognizes the right to choose prayer as a legitimate substitute for conventional medicine.''

Talbot adds, however, that the church was clearly disappointed that the ``court did not see that protection as reaching as broadly as we felt it should.''

Further, Talbot stresses that the ``court did not say the parents violated the law. It simply said that a jury would need to make this determination.''

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Shauntay Walker, a four-year old, showed flu-like symptoms in late February 1984. Her mother, a Christian Scientist, kept her home from pre-school and enlisted the help of a Christian Science practitioner. The practitioner prayed for the child and visited her. Also a Christian Science nurse attended the child on several occasions.

When Shauntay died in March, an autopsy found that her death resulted from meningitis. Laurie Walker was arraigned on criminal charges.

Thomas Volk, attorney for Mrs. Walker, unsuccessfully moved to set aside the complaint on grounds that the parent was acting compassionately and within the law by relying on prayer for healing. He also held that the statutes under which Walker was charged failed to provide ``fair notice'' that her conduct was criminal.

Mr. Volk says he may now petition the state Supreme Court for a rehearing, contending that the child endangerment law has not before been used to prosecute a parent who relied on prayer for healing.

An appeal to the United States Supreme Court is also an option, the defense lawyer adds.

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