The Church of Christ, Scientist, has been ordered—for the first time—to pay damages in a wrongful death civil lawsuit brought in response to the denomination’s teachings against medical treatment of the sick.
A Hennepin County District Court jury in Minnesota assessed the church $9 million in punitive damages on August 25 after finding Kathy McKown negligent in the death of her 11-year-old son, Ian, who died in 1989 while in a diabetic coma. The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, one of seven defendants found culpable, also was ordered to pay $520,000 in actual damages on August 18. The suit was filed by the boy’s father, 44-year-old Douglas Lundman, who divorced McKown in 1984. McKown said she had relied on spiritual healing, testifying that prayer had cured Ian’s impetigo earlier and her own deafness at age 2.
McKown’s attorney, Terrence Fleming, said, “When he was in dire need, she could do only what her religious faith told her to do.” Victor Westberg, manager of the Christian Science committees on publications, says the ruling has a “chilling effect on religion,” and the church plans to appeal.
Religious-liberties organizations also reacted strongly to the ruling, especially the punitive-damage award. “This decision is very troubling,” says Steve K. Green, counsel for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It places a church’s teaching into question by a judicial authority and makes it subject to liability because a private individual chooses to follow those tenets.”
“Punishing the church for a belief system sets a bad precedent,” says John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville. “This may be an anomaly now, but it may not be in the future ...1
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