High Court Permits Prosecution in Faith-Healing Death

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court, rejecting an appeal by a Christian Scientist from California, indicated Monday that the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion does not prevent the criminal prosecution of a mother who used only prayer to treat her dying child.

The justices let stand a unanimous state Supreme Court ruling that last November cleared the way for trial on manslaughter and child endangerment charges of a Sacramento woman whose 4-year-old daughter died of acute meningitis.

Refused to Review Cases

Over the years, the high court has not specifically ruled on whether a faith healer is exempted on religious grounds from government prosecution, but the justices recently have refused to review a variety of state prosecutions involving parents who fail to get medical care for seriously ill children.


Meanwhile, in a second California case, the justices said that the California Highway Patrol may not be sued for damages for the rape and murder of a young woman by a CHP officer.

Last week, the high court ruled 5 to 4 that neither a state nor its officials may be sued in state court for violations of a citizen’s constitutional rights. Apparently applying that ruling to a case growing out of the 1982 murder of 23-year-old Robin Bishop, the high court Monday dismissed a $100-million suit against the CHP and its officials for failing to supervise the officer.

Both cases were rejected without comment Monday.

In the religion case (Walker vs. Superior Court of Sacramento, 88-1471), the high court appears to accept the view of the state Supreme Court that the Constitution fully protects religious beliefs but not religious conduct.


Last month, the justices let stand a state court decision calling for a trial on whether the followers of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon used fraud in recruiting new church members. Lawyers for Moon had argued that the First Amendment’s guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion forbade such a trial.

In the case dismissed Monday, attorneys for Laurie Walker of Sacramento argued that the First Amendment does not permit government prosecutors to decide whether she acted reasonably in relying on prayer, rather than doctors, to cure her ailing daughter. They contended also that California law is unclear because one section of the state code was amended in 1976 to exempt parents from child neglect charges if they relied on “treatment through spiritual means.”

In February, 1984, Walker’s daughter, Shauntay, developed a fever and began vomiting. On the fourth day, she developed a stiff neck, a symptom of meningitis. Ignoring neighbors’ pleas to get medical treatment for her child, Walker relied on prayers by a Christian Scientist. After 17 days, the child died of bacterial meningitis, an infection that can be cured with antibiotics.

Walker was charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. If convicted, she could face up to six years in prison.

In November, the state Supreme Court said that Walker’s religious beliefs, although sincere, do not exempt her from prosecution. “Parents have no right to free exercise of religion at the price of a child’s life,” Justice Stanley Mosk wrote for the court. The appeal of that decision was rejected Monday.

In the highway patrol case (Bishop vs. Gwaltney, 88-527), the parents of Bishop contended that CHP officers were aware of the fact that patrolman George Michael Gwaltney stopped attractive female motorists and tried to force them to have sex with him. On Jan. 11, 1982, Bishop was driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on Interstate 15 when she was stopped, raped and murdered.

After two mistrials in state courts, Gwaltney was tried in a federal court, convicted and sentenced to 90 years in prison. California permits suits against its own officials but, because of the delays in Gwaltney’s prosecution, Bishop’s parents waited too long under state law to file such a claim against the state.

In a series of cases, the Supreme Court has allowed local government officials to be sued for violating constitutional rights, but not state officials.


Last week’s 5-4 ruling in a Michigan case (Will vs. Michigan State Police, 87-1207) closed the door to damage suits against state officials that allege violations of federal constitutional rights.