The California Supreme Court is considering whether a Christian Scientist should be tried on a charge of manslaughter in the 1984 death of her 4-year-old daughter, who died of acute bacterial meningitis. Instead of calling a doctor, the mother asked an accredited Christian Scientist practitioner to pray for the girl's recovery.
In Massachusetts, a Christian Scientist couple have just been indicted for manslaughter, after the 1986 death of their 2 1/2-year-old son from a bowel obstruction.
Meanwhile, in Culver City, Rosanna Arquette has been dramatizing a story about the perils of faith healing. "Promised a Miracle," which also stars Judge Reinhold, airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on CBS.
The setting on this day is the interior of a church. Members of the congregation sit shoulder to shoulder in the pews, listening to Brother Walker as he implores them, "I'd like someone to give a testimony tonight and tell us what the Lord has done for you."
Arquette, as Lucky Parker, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, shyly puts up her hand. She rises and says, "I need to testify to the power of God to heal." She starts slowly, but gathers speed. "My husband and I, we think our son was healed by God. . . . No! We know our son, Wesley, was healed of diabetes by God."
"Promised a Miracle" is a true story. Three days after Lucky Parker announced in church that her son's diabetes had been cured by God, 11-year-old Wesley was dead. Because the Parkers threw Wesley's insulin away, they were eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter and felony child abuse and put on probation.
These events took place 15 years ago in Barstow. The TV film project is based on Larry Parker's book, "We Let Our Son Die." The Parkers themselves appear as extras.
"I'm proud of CBS for saying yes to this movie," Arquette said. "This is an important story to tell."
Best known for her work in such films as "Baby, It's You," "Desperately Seeking Susan," "After Hours" and the miniseries "The Executioner's Song," Arquette agreed to play Mrs. Parker because of the actress' passion about the subject.
"I took this on because a lot of children are dying in the United States this way, and it's wrong," she said, her voice trembling with emotion.
She met the Parkers only during the final week of filming.
"It was a little difficult," she recalled in an interview before heading for the Cannes Film Festival this week. "I wanted to look Mrs. Parker in the eye as a human being and try to understand, but in my heart I didn't understand.
"It's OK for people to have faith and believe in God. We're not putting down the church or Christianity. God gave people the intelligence to create medicine to heal. It's really tragic when a child has to die because of negligence. What a terrible mistake! These people blew it. It should never happen again."
The Parkers agree, and they dedicated "We Let Our Son Die" "To our beloved son, Wesley, may his death not be in vain." In the book, which was published in 1980, Parker wrote: "Wesley died needlessly, a victim of our imbalance and misuse of the Bible. . . . All healing comes from God--medicine, nature and prayer are methods by which He accomplishes it. . . . Ample evidence exists in the Bible for the cooperation between medicine and healing by faith."
Producer Roni Weisberg expects the TV movie to be controversial.
"It takes a stance against people who take the teachings of the church into their own hands and go too far," she said. "The Parkers took it too far in their desire to be good Christians and have something good happen in their lives. They now believe in medicine, and they want to promote the idea that medicine is one of God's gifts."
The Parkers belonged to the First Assembly of God Church in Barstow.
"The Assemblies of God (the largest Pentecostal church and the one to which evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart have been attached) severed themselves from the movie," Weisberg noted.
"We wanted them to formally back the movie and provide us with advisers, but they declined. They didn't want us to film in any of their churches. They didn't like the idea of promoting the Parkers' story. It's an embarrassment to them. In fact, I'm just glad they're not taking a more active stand against us."
However, Weisberg did have the cooperation of the current pastor of the First Assembly of God Church in Barstow. "Pastor Randall Wood believed in doing this story," she said, "and he has been quietly helpful."
Weisberg obtained the rights to the Parkers' story four years ago, after convincing the couple of her earnest intentions.
"Their biggest fear was that I would exploit their story," she recalled. "This was really the first case of its kind that got publicity."
She convinced them of her earnestness, she said, by "driving up there a couple times in my Volkswagen. I didn't present a Hollywood look. They'd seen 'Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal,' which I produced, so they knew I was legitimate. They'd say, 'Call back in two or three months,' and I did. It took me a year to get the rights, but they ended up giving them to me for free.
"I don't disbelieve in faith healing," Weisberg said. "The problem is when it becomes so exaggerated or when it's used on children. You should be able to decide for yourself, but it's an adult responsibility. Children die every year because their parents withhold medical treatment.
"I know of 123 documented cases, and I'm sure there are many more that go undocumented. I got a copy of an article about a diabetic boy who died recently in a case very similar to this one. I want 'Promised a Miracle' to create good. I will be happy if the film can save one child's life."