Constitution cited as Michigan court dismisses all charges against church
The Circuit Court of Wayne County, Mich., as a result of pretrial hearings on defendants' motion for summary judgment, has dismissed all charges against two Christian Science practitioners and The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Mass.
A former Michigan couple, Rita and Douglas Swan, had alleged negligence and misrepresentation on the part of defendants in connection with the 1977 illness and death of their 16-month-old son. They had employed first one, then another practitioner before taking the child to a hospital where, after a week, he died.
During two days of hearings here on Tuesday and Wednesday, Judge Richard C. Kaufman ruled one by one on some 20 items alleging negligence and misrepresentation. He granted summary judgment in each instance. (A summary judgment is one issued by a judge without a trial.)
Judge Kaufman stated that since the conduct and points of view of defendants had been offered at all times in the context of ''sincerely held religious beliefs,'' the practitioners and the church were entitled to protection under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.
Judge Kaufman noted that First Amendment issues ''permeate'' the entire case, adding: ''I cannot allow this trial to be an attack on religious belief.'' Nor can such beliefs, said the judge, ''be the basis for imposing civil liability.''
At the close of the hearings, however, the judge noted that ''the bringing of this lawsuit, and lawsuits of this type, forces our society through its courts to see exactly the costs associated with our First Amendment freedoms and how they impact in a given context.''
The judge, further, commended the plaintiffs for their ''courage in bringing this lawsuit'' and said that ''our appellate courts'' may be prompted by it to ''create more limited exceptions to some of our First Amendment freedoms.'' The Swans have also indicated their intention to continue their legislative campaign to restrict parents' rights to practice spiritual healing for children.
William G. Christopher, attorney for the defendants, emphasized that ''the issue is not one of blame, but that of freedoms guaranteed to all of us to practice a religious faith without having to go to court to prove if that faith is true or false. This case is a test of constitutional protections.''
David W. Christensen, attorney for the plaintiffs, charged that Christian Scientists neglect the welfare of their children, hiding behind First Amendment protections. He also reiterated his allegations that Christian Science offers the public ''an alternative health-care system - with fees and diagnoses - that allows children to go without medical care.'' He said the summary judgment of the Circuit Court would be appealed to the Michigan State Court of Appeals, also in Detroit.
Nathan Talbot, manager of the Church's Committee on Publication, commented that ''far from being some kind of secular 'health-care system,' the purpose of Christian Science healing is rooted in a deeply Christian effort to bring the individual closer to God. The aim of prayer,'' he said, ''today, as so clearly was the case in New Testament times, is to foster a spiritual renewal that cares completely for every human need.''