Death raises church-state questions anew

Denver Post/March 15, 1999
By Nancy Lofholm

GRAND JUNCTION - As Warren Trevette Glory lay dying, Marvin Peterson anointed the 18-day-old baby with olive oil, laid his big trucker's hands gently on his tiny body and bowed his head, praying to God to heal Warren.

The earnest prayers Peterson said over the dying baby - his grandson - were the same that three generations of General Assembly Church of the First Born elders have spoken over the sick and dying in lieu of giving them medical care. First Born members believe only God can heal and only when He chooses.

So when Warren opened his eyes and looked directly into Peterson's, squeezed Peterson's finger and drew his last breath, Peterson said, his faith in God's healing power didn't waver. He said God can see into the future and he may have seen Warren as a drug addict or someone with an awful disease or disabled and decided to take him before he had to suffer.

Warren Glory's death is not an isolated case. There have been hundreds of child deaths across the country in the past 20 years among the dozens of religious sects that don't believe in medical intervention. They fall into a sensitive and confusing area of law that pits religious freedom against child welfare - a conflict that believers like Peterson can't fathom.

"I have never seen such peace," Peterson said about Warren's death. "You are sad in your heart that you have lost one, but that child was sanctified. He's asleep in the Lord. If you die in the Lord you're just asleep and waiting until judgment day."

Peterson, an elder in the Grand Junction Church of the First Born, speaks of a spiritual judgment day, but his family and other members of this sect also face earthly judgment days in courtrooms.

Peterson knew that could be the consequence when he finished his spiritual ministrations on Warren that last Sunday in February and dialed 911 to report the death. He knew the result could be prosecution, or as First Born members see it, persecution.

Now, his daughter and her husband, Mindy and Joshua Glory, face possible charges of child abuse or even homicide for sticking to their faith and choosing not to seek medical care for a baby whose pneumonia and meningitis could likely have been cured with antibiotics.

Like most states, Colorado has a religious exemption statute tacked onto child abuse and neglect laws so that parents who withhold medical care from their children for religious reasons aren't held to exactly the same standards as other parents. The exemption was created after the then-U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare threatened in 1974 to withhold federal monies for childrens' programs from states that didn't add the exemptions to their child codes, a requirement that was later repealed.

Colorado initially passed an exemption that gave blanket immunity to parents or guardians who withheld treatment on religious grounds unless the children were in danger of dying. Gov. Bill Owens, then a state senator, attempted to tighten up that bill in 1989 by giving the state the right to step in and force medical care when a child has a life-threatening or disabling illness.

But the law has been widely panned because of a loophole Owens added for the Christian Science Church, the only large, mainstream church that doesn't believe in medical treatment.

The law specifies that faith healing treatments recognized as valid by the IRS and insurance companies, or that can be proven to be as effective as medical care, are considered legitimate forms of treatment. Christian Science faith healing treatments are the only ones covered by insurers and tax laws.

Owens said he drafted his law in the face of heavy opposition because he was appalled that children who could be treated and saved were dying.

"My concern was not so much putting parents in jail as it is protecting the children," Owens said. He added, "I believe in the year 1999 it's not necessary to let children die of pneumonia because someone wouldn't let them use penicillin."

Prosecutors have a tricky time with the exemption law because they must prove that parents or guardians who withheld medical treatment knew a child's life was in danger.

Ray Slaughter, executive director of the Colorado District Attorney's Council, calls the exemption "a bar to prosecution." Mesa County District Attorney Frank Daniels, who is still weighing evidence to decide if he can prosecute the Glorys, said the exemption "muddies the water in this kind of case." Daniels and other prosecutors face another tough, human factor in these cases: They find it difficult to prosecute well-intentioned, otherwise law-abiding people who are holding on to unshakeble religious beliefs.

"You are dealing with good people who are doing things for a reason, and I find it hard to argue with their religious beliefs," Daniels said.

Church of the First Born members are described as kind, decent, hard-working folks. They wouldn't be noticed if they weren't catapulted into the news whenever one of their children dies after they have withheld medical care - something that has happened 31 times nationwide in the past 23 years, according to a group called Children's Health Care is a Legal Duty, or CHILD, that tracks such deaths.

Since the early 1800s, when First Born churches were established in the United States, members have lived by a Bible tenet saying they should have "a meek and quiet spirit." The estimated 20,000 members believe in family unity and preach against divorce. The women in the church don't cut their hair, and they are urged to dress modestly and to stay at home to raise their families.

Members of the close-knit congregations refer to those outside their church as being "out in the world." They call each other "sisters" and "brethren. " They greet each other with a "holy kiss" on the lips, although that is not practiced as much in the open anymore be cause "nowadays people think you're lesbian or gay," Peterson said.

They perform baptisms and the laying on of hands to imbue new members with the Holy Spirit. They do foot washings and they speak in tongues during their twice-a-week services held in simple wood-frame churches, usually located in rural areas. They have no paid clergy, so their services are conducted by the entire congregation. Members speak or start a hymn when the spirit moves them.

They don't excommunicate members who fail to follow all the tenets of the church - something church elders say happens more and more often in the modern world. Instead, they pray for them. They consider the only damnable sin to be blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. When members die, they believe they are suspended in sleep until judgment day. When babies die, they are considered sanctified and heaven-worthy if just one of their parents is a church believer.

Their belief in faith healing is based in this passage from the fifth chapter of the Book of James: "Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church and let them pray over him anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of the faithful shall save the sick and the Lord shall raise him up: and if they have committed sins, they shall be forgiven."

Church of the First Born members interpret that in differing degrees. Many wear glasses. Some see dentists. Some take pain medications. A few occasionally go to hospitals.

Elders say they never prevent other members from seeking medical help if that's what they choose to do. They believe physicians have the ability to heal, but they think that people who go to doctors and use medicine do so only because they don't have enough enough faith and trust in God.

When a member is sick or dying, church elders come to pray at the bedside. They lay their hands on the sick and anoint them with olive oil. They say many times the power of the prayers works and people are healed.

If not, they do all they can within the constraints of their faith to make them comfortable.

"They take wonderful care of their dying people," said Montezuma County Coroner and retired physician Dr. Paul Bostrom, who has been present at a number of deaths of adult members of the Church of the First Born.

Since the mid-'70s when CHILD began tracking First Born deaths of children who weren't given medical treatment, there have been eight known deaths in Colorado in the half-dozen First Born congregations located around Cortez, Delta, Olathe, Grand Junction and Denver.

Two Cortez-area children, Christy Sitton and Brian Sproul, died in 1974 and 1976 of diphtheria, an infectious disease that can be avoided with childhood immunizations. The outbreak in non-immunized First Born children sickened 14 children in three years. No one was prosecuted.

In 1982, 14-year-old Travis Drake of Grand Junction died of a ruptured appendix after his First Born parents refused to seek medical treatment. The parents were not prosecuted.

In 1987, newborn Lucas Long died in Delta County after his parents refused to seek medical help. The case was publicized because someone outside the church had called authorities, saying a newborn was dying.

When prosecution was discussed, friends of the Longs took out full-page adds in a Delta newspaper defending the Longs' beliefs. They called physicians "fiends" who were trying to perpetrate "a Nazi holocaust." The Longs were not prosecuted.

Rebecca Sweet, 7, died in 1990 at her Olathe home weeks after her appendix ruptured. By the time she died of massive infection, she was skeletal, except for her abdomen which was swollen from infection.

Angela's parents, David and Barbara Sweet, were convicted of child abuse after unsuccessfully arguing that Colorado's exemption law is unconstitutional because it gives a preference to one religious group. Under a plea bargain, they served no sentence but were ordered to provide medical care as needed for their other children for the next three years.

In 1997, 10-month-old Kyra Wright of Cortez died of viral pneumonia, which doctors said could have been treated with antibiotics. Her parents were not prosecuted.

Keenan Littlefield of Cortez died in 1998 at the age of 10 days from a bowel obstruction physicians said could have been treated with surgery. His parents also were not prosecuted.

Montezuma County District Attorney Paul Green said at the time that Colorado's religious exemption laws made it so difficult and costly to prosecute these cases that the results were not worth it.

Green and coroner Bostrom met with several First Born elders after the Cortez deaths to see if church members would notify authorities when a child was seriously ill, but Bostrom said the elders were adamant about not seeking medical help. They will only provide it if they are court-ordered to do so. That usually only happens when children are old enough to be in school and teachers can report illnesses or extended absences.

"I can see their dilemma. What's more important for people of faith than to be right with God? If it means denying their kids medical care, that's a dilemma for them and a dilemma for us," Bostrom said.

There have been a few cases where First Born parents have been ordered to get medical treatment for their children and the children were saved.

In 1978, a disabled Mesa County child who was adopted by First Born parents received seizure-control medication under court order. During the next four years, the case was argued and overturned before the Colorado Supreme Court finally ruled the parents would have to provide medication in spite of their religious beliefs.

Bostrom once witnessed an accident in Cortez in which a teenage First born member was injured. While First Born elders discussed what to do at the scene, paramedics asked the young man what he wanted and he chose treatment.

These are the only First Born cases that have come to the attention of authorities, but Rita Swan, the founder of CHILD, said she believes there are many more.

"I think the death rates are astronomical and far more than we'll ever know," said Swan, who turned to lobbying against religious exemptions after her own son died 23 years ago without medical treatment while she was a Christian Scientist.

Swan has chronicled more than 200 child deaths, and she has reams of what she calls "horror stories" from the many little-known sects that don't believe in doctors or medicine.

Swan fears more cases will turn up in Colorado, and until the state's "ludicrous and farcical law" is changed, and she doesn't expect many to be successfully prosecuted.

Owens said his changes in the law weren't aimed at prosecution. They were designed to get treatment for children before they die or are disabled.

He said he fought for the legislation because he was "haunted by" a 1982 Larimer County case involving a church called Jesus Through Jon and Judy, whose members believe Jesus is the only legitimate healer.

Jessica Lybarger, the 5-week-old daughter of founders Jon and Judy Lybarger, died of untreated pneumonia. In a case that wound through the court for years, her father was initially convicted of child abuse. His attorneys had tried to raise a religious defense, but a judge ruled Colorado's law unconstitutional. The Colorado Supreme Court overturned two more guilty convictions for Lybarger. A third trial resulted in a mistrial. The prosecutor dropped charges rather than retry the case a fourth time. Colorado's law will be tested again in May, when a case of felony child abuse against Rebecca Ramirez is scheduled to go to trial in Denver. Ramirez, a member of the Disciple Fellowship Church, whose members believe medicine is demonic, is charged with child abuse for withholding treatment from her 8-year-old son, Daniel. He died of diabetes without his insulin treatments.

"These are very difficult cases. There will be continuing problems," Slaughter said.

Warren Glory's will be one of them.

Daniels has been conferring with other prosecutors and researching other deaths of children in faithhealing sects as he mulls over what to do in the case.

Dr. Rob Kurtzman, the Mesa County coroner who examined Glory's infection-ridden body, has ruled the manner of death a homicide, but he admits it could be hard to prove in court that Glory's 22- and 23-year-old parents knew he was dying.

Kurtzman examines dozens of bodies in his pathology practice, but this one has bothered him.

"If adults choose to make martyrs of themselves, so be it," Kurtzman said. "But they shouldn't be able to do this to their kids."

First Born members, who have been grilled by investigators and hounded by reporters since they buried Warren Glory in the Pea Green Cemetery outside Delta last week, have been steadfast in holding to their belief that they have only done what God has directed them to do.

"We are not a people who are cruel," Peterson said. "We are a people who trust in God."

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