Christian Scientists oppose measure

Denver Post Western Slope Bureau/February 23, 2001
By Nancy Lofholm

When faith-healing religious sects such as the General Assembly Church of the First Born pray over the sick and injured, members ask God to use his power to stop illness and mend injuries. When Christian Scientists pray, there is no asking.

Christian Scientists say prayers to affirm their own spirituality - the belief that they were created in God's image and have great spiritual power within themselves. And they don't wait for illness or injury to strike before they pray. "It's an everyday thing, not something we turn to in time of emergency," said Win Ivey, a member of the First Church of Christian Science in Denver.

Christian Scientists view their form of intellectual prayer, and their record of healings, as enough of a difference to separate them from other churches that practice faith healing. And this powerful religion, which has 29 congregations across Colorado, has been able in the past to convince the IRS, major insurance companies and lawmakers that they deserve individual treatment because of that difference.

The IRS allows Christian Scientists to deduct the cost of hiring Christian practitioners to say special prayers and offer guidance for the sick. Major insurance companies cover that cost just as they would standard medical treatments. And in 1989, the Colorado legislature included an exemption in the state's child-abuse statutes that essentially makes Christian Scientists not liable for death or disability that might result if they choose to treat their children with Christian Science practices rather than medical treatments.

Now, the Christian Scientists are bringing out their powerful lobby again as HB 1286, which would remove that exemption, moves through the legislature. "We have to keep in mind that an integral part of this is freedom of religion," said Ivey.

The Christian Science arguments are heard, in part, because the church has a well-organized lobbying network that is very willing to talk about Christian Science beliefs. Other faith-healing religions, like the Church of the First Born, hold just as strong generationally ingrained beliefs that prayer can heal the sick, but they have a much smaller membership, and they keep to themselves.

Elders of the Church of the First Born rarely talk about their beliefs to people outside of their church. They have not commented publicly since the most recent death of a First Born child several weeks ago - a death that has given impetus to the renewed effort to take away the Christian Science exemption and make it easier to prosecute Colorado parents who withhold medical care from their seriously ill children.

Since 1974, there have been 11 known deaths of church of the First Born children because medical treatment was withheld. There have been no recorded deaths of Christian Science children. Christian Scientists say their church doesn't prohibit parents from seeking medical help for their children if they feel their prayers aren't being effective. In the past, Church of the First Born elders have said the same thing. They view seeking medical care as a lapse of faith but not reason for excommunication from the church.

But former members of the Christian Science Church say the teachings of the church often weigh more strongly in parents' minds than the idea that they have choices. Rita Swan, a former Christian Scientist who allowed her son to die without medical treatment because she believed she should rely on prayer, said members of the church are made to feel like failures if their prayer isn't strong enough. Swan is now one of the most outspoken critics of the Christian Science Church in the country.

Mary Lou Lundberg, a Denver woman who was formerly a Christian Scientist, said she knows the horror of being an ill young person who does not share her parents' beliefs. Lundberg said that when she was 19, her parents chose to treat her serious illness with prayer rather than medical care.

"There was that sense of their not doing anything to help me - a sense of being very much alone. I've been distressed by the whole business of Christian Science since then," said the 54-year-old Lundberg. The Christian Science Church publishes weekly records of healings that church officials say they have been able to verify. The church's monthly periodical, which is distributed nationally, usually includes eight to 10 healing testimonials.

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