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Religion as Defense in Child Death: Oregon Statute

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Sleepy radio listeners have long muttered “WHAT hour?” at radio announcers who say, “it is 10 minutes past the hour.” (Would it be so hard to say, it is 10 minutes past 7 a.m. in San Francisco? Public radio listeners are smart enough to figure out what time it is then in Indianapolis. Radio announcers also play this game with the stock market. “The Dow Jones went up 13 points today.” TO WHAT, pray tell?!)

And newspaper readers (especially lawyers and law librarians) have long muttered, “WHICH statute?” at newspaper reporters who write, “a 1999 statute ….” WHICH STATUTE?!

Recent stories in the newspapers keep saying, “a 1999 statute” changed the law in Oregon [about religion as a defense when parents withhold medical treatment from their child] without otherwise identifying WHICH statute. For the record: it is this statute:

1999 Chapter 954 (HB 2494): amended ORS 163.125 and ORS 163.555.

You will need to look at the 1997 ORS, or earlier, to see what the statute used to say. Superseded ORSs are not at the Legislature’s webpage (don’t ask me why – call your state legislator). They are available in print at some public law libraries and with some subscription legal research databases. Earlier editions of the Oregon Laws are at the Legislature’s website, but you need the Chapter number to find the section you need.

For the purpose of this blog post, the previous statute, 1997 ORS 163.555(2)(b) read:

In a prosecution for failing to provide necessary and proper medical attention, it is a defense that the medical attention was provided by treatment by prayer thought spiritual means alone by adherents of a bona fide religious denomination that relies exclusively on this form of treatment in lieu of medical attention….”

Trial in death of infant raises questions of parental rights, religious freedom,
by Steve Mayes, The Oregonian, Sunday June 21, 2009.

“…The Worthington case will be the first time anyone in Oregon has been prosecuted under a 1999 law passed in response to an extraordinary number of child deaths involving the Worthingtons’ church, the Followers of Christ in Oregon City. The law eliminated religion as a defense in most cases of medical neglect….” (read full article)