Born to Believe
The Pea Green cemetery holds the graves of many infants.Mike Stern, Montrose County DA, was one of the first to file charges against First Born parents.Mesa County DA Frank Daniels says his mandate is to protect children.Coroner Rob Kurtzman believes the deceased children could have lived with proper medical care.
Even in the glare of the noonday sun, the Pea Green cemetery feels like a haunted place. Situated on a rocky bluff overlooking a highway in rural Montrose County, the cemetery is a parched jumble of tombstones and rock, drained of all life except for a copper-colored horse that lives in a neighboring pasture. It is not the specter of the lone horse, however, huddling like an agoraphobe in the shade of a lean-to, that makes the cemetery so foreboding, but the graves themselves. Most seem to be filled with infants or small children.
In the early to mid-twentieth century, when doctors were scarce and prenatal care was nonexistent, high infant mortality rates were not uncommon on Colorado's Western Slope. But for members of the First Assembly and Church of the First Born, a Christian denomination that uses prayer instead of medicine to heal the sick, the mortality rate appears to have remained high. Between 1990 and July of this year, eleven children born to members of the First Born were buried in the Pea Green cemetery.
The names of several of these children have been splashed across the pages of the state's newspapers and then quickly forgotten: Angela Sweet, a girl who was little more than a skeleton when she passed away on June 26, 1990; Warren Trevette Glory, an eighteen-day-old infant who died of meningitis on February 28, 1999; Billy Ray Reed, who died on July 9 from a common heart defect, and Ishmael Berger Belebbas, who was born dead on July 18 after lying for several days in his mother's birth canal.
In addition to these four, Pea Green holds seven more First Born children who died between 1990 and the present. With the exception of one child, who died in a fire, the causes of their deaths are not publicly available, so it's impossible to determine whether these children might have lived if they had received medical intervention. But of the four whose cause of death is known -- Angela Sweet, Warren Trevette Glory, Billy Ray Reed, even Ishmael Berger Belebbas -- authorities say each child would have had a good chance of surviving had his parents sought timely medical attention.
But those parents, devout members of the Church of the First Born, believe so wholeheartedly in the power of prayer that they never even considered that option. While their grief is as intense as that of any parent who loses a child, the sorrow is tempered by the unerring conviction that the child's death was God's will. Sanctified through their parents and utterly free of sin, the children -- or "little dolls," as one church member calls them -- are believed to be merely asleep until Judgment Day, when they will awaken and join the Lord and their families in heaven.
Since 1989, the Colorado Legislature has rebuffed efforts by law-enforcement officials to clarify state laws that currently exempt parents who use spiritual healing from charges of child abuse and neglect. Much of the opposition has come from the Christian Science Church, a denomination founded in Boston in the late 1800s by Mary Baker Eddy. Although Christian Scientists believe that prayer is an effective alternative to modern medicine, their underlying theology is markedly different from that of such fundamentalist churches such as the First Born. But according to a 1998 paper published in Pediatrics magazine, some children of Christian Scientists are also dying from illnesses that could easily have been treated.
Until the law is changed, prosecutors around the state predict these deaths will continue. And cemeteries like the Pea Green, which sells four plots for $100, will continue to do a brisk business.
"Is one of you ill? He should send for the elders of the congregation to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer offered in faith will save the sick man, the Lord will raise him from his bed, any sins he may have committed will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, and then you will be healed." - Book of James, Fifth Chapter.
On February 28, 1999, a Sunday afternoon, several elders from the Church of the First Born were summoned to the home of Josh and Mindy Glory, a tidy trailer on the outskirts of Grand Junction. The couple's son, Warren Trevette, just eighteen days old, lay swaddled in a blanket. He had been congested and ill for a week or so, and Mindy's father, Marvin Peterson, had asked four elders to come and pray for the infant.
For Mindy and Josh Glory, a young couple who had been raised in the Church of the First Born and always shunned so much as an aspirin, the summoning of the elders was a natural response. Like their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents before them, they believed that God was a far more effective healer than any medical doctor. Both had experienced the miraculous power of prayer.
Mindy had been born at home, just like her mother. So it was only natural that she, too, would want to give birth to her own children in the privacy of her home. Seventeen months earlier, she had given birth to a healthy young baby girl named Tiana Mae with no complications whatsoever.
On February 9, 1999, she went into labor with her second child. The Glorys kept no medications in the house save for some herbal remedies and prenatal vitamins. Two "helpers" from the Church of the First Born were on hand to aid in the delivery. Although the women were not certified as midwives, one of the helpers, Esther Byers, later told investigators from the Mesa County Sheriff's Department that she had participated in the delivery of 148 children.
After fourteen hours, Warren Trevette was born. By all accounts, it was a normal delivery. Weighing nine pounds and four ounces, Warren seemed like a fat, healthy baby, and he began nursing even before the umbilical cord was cut. In the days following their son's birth, the Glorys' trailer overflowed with well-wishers. Friends and relatives stopped by to look at the new baby and bring covered dishes of food.
Mindy nursed the baby herself and supplemented his diet with Carnation Good Start. Although he had a good appetite that first week, seven to ten days after he was born, he developed a runny nose and the sniffles. Everyone assumed the infant had a touch of the flu, since Mindy and her husband were just getting over the flu themselves when he was born.
Mindy's mother-in-law, Beverly Peterson, midwife Esther Byers and other female friends helped take care of the infant, changing his diapers, feeding him, occasionally suctioning the phlegm from his nose or mouth with a little syringe. Several noticed that he seemed to have lost a little weight and was having a hard time catching his breath. Esther Byers told deputies the child's lips had looked a little blue, but then they would "pink up."
On Thursday or Friday of that second week, Mindy and Josh became concerned enough about their son's well-being to ask the elders of the church to come pray for him. The elders anointed the baby's head with olive oil, then bowed their heads and began to pray.
By Sunday morning, it looked like their prayers had been answered and the baby was going to be fine. Warren started "chowing down," his father would later recall. Joshua was so relieved that he went to church with his father-in-law and thanked the congregation for all their prayers. Afterward the pair went to Arby's and got some food to take back to Mindy and the others at the trailer.
That afternoon, the baby suddenly took a turn for the worse, and the Glorys called for the elders again. When a call comes in like that, "you go," elder Calvin David Raff later told an investigator from the sheriff's department. "Most members don't call the elders to come for a runny nose. They don't abuse that privilege." Warren's head was again anointed with olive oil, and the elders and family members began to pray.
Soon after the prayer session was over, Warren started to gag. Thinking he needed to burp, Marvin Peterson picked up the infant and patted him on his back, then gently laid him back down on the couch. But the baby's stillness must have alarmed him. He leaned his face down next to Warren's and listened for breathing. Nothing.
The minutes that followed were extremely confusing; everyone gave a slightly different account when questioned by sheriff's deputies. Someone apparently advised Marvin Peterson to call McClean's Funeral Home. In the old days, when they had a death in the family, First Born members would simply call the funeral home; the mortuary, in turn, would contact the coroner and send someone out to remove the body. But the law has changed, and so William McClean advised Marvin Peterson to call 911. The emergency dispatcher instructed the grandfather on how to perform emergency cardiopulmonary resuscitation until an ambulance arrived. Mindy ran into the bathroom and began crying. "I couldn't handle it," she would later tell deputies.
It took paramedics about nine minutes to get to the trailer. When they arrived, they found the baby lying in a blanket on the couch with family members and several church elders hovering nearby. Everybody had "cried their eyes out" when they realized the infant had died, but by the time the ambulance arrived, they'd composed themselves. Mike Kelley of the Grand Junction Fire Department later told Deputy J. Warner that he felt as if he had walked into a funeral. "'I've been doing this for nineteen years, and I've seen some strange shit, but that was really strange,'" Warner quoted him as saying. "Mr. Kelley thought it strange that there were so many people present and they all seemed relatively calm."
The paramedics struggled to revive the baby. But Warren Trevette Glory was dead. Not once had Mindy or Josh Glory, or their parents, or their friends, or any of the other visitors who came and went from that trailer during the eighteen days that the infant lived ever called a doctor or even considered calling a doctor. Yet according to the coroner, the infant's troubles stemmed from bacterial pneumonia that could have been readily treated with antibiotics.
Mindy later told investigators she hadn't thought there was anything seriously wrong with her son. But even if she had known how desperately ill he was, she said, "I still would have called for the elders of our church."
Frank Daniels, the Mesa County district attorney, was deeply troubled by the Glory case. A prosecutor for eighteen years, he was accustomed to dealing with hardened criminals -- not law-abiding young people such as Mindy and Josh. "We're used to prosecuting bad guys for doing bad things," he says. "When a guy holds up a convenience store with a gun, you know a bad guy did that. Here we have people committing acts for good reasons and getting bad results."
The case touched on several fundamental rights: parental autonomy and the right to practice one's religion freely versus the state's duty to protect children from harm and the rights of children themselves to adequate medical care. "It's a friction between mandates," says Daniels, the father of four and a member of the Episcopalian Church. "I think I have a mandate to protect children, and they have a mandate to pray."
One factor that tilted heavily toward a criminal prosecution was the finding of Dr. Robert Kurtzman, a forensic pathologist and the Mesa County coroner who performed Warren Glory's autopsy. Kurtzman concluded that the child had suffered from bacterial pneumonia that subsequently led to bacterial meningitis and severe dehydration. Meningitis, he said, often develops when pneumonia goes untreated and the bacteria from the lungs spread to the brain through the bloodstream.
Even though Josh and Mindy thought their child had been eating, Kurtzman found that Warren's stomach, small intestine and large intestine were empty, indicating no recent consumption of food. Because the parents should have recognized the life-threatening condition and failed to seek medical attention, Kurtzman ruled the infant's death a homicide. In blunt language, he wrote, "The death of this infant is a direct consequence of the caretaker's failure to seek medical care in an easily recognized life endangering condition."
After Kurtzman made his ruling, Frank Daniels began doing some research. It turned out that law-enforcement officials in Mesa County and other Colorado counties had been grappling with the same dilemma for decades. In Cortez, several children whose parents belonged to the First Born Church had died of diphtheria in the mid-1970s after their parents forbade them to be immunized. In 1982, Travis Drake, a fourteen-year-old from Grand Junction, died of a ruptured appendix. And in nearby Delta County, Lukas Long, a day-old baby, had died in 1987. But the case that Daniels found the most shocking was the one involving Angela Sweet. The morgue photographs showed a severely emaciated child with a swollen abdomen. "I've never seen anything like those photos," he says.
David and Barbara Sweet were members of the First Assembly and Church of the First Born. According to Montrose County Sheriff's Department investigative reports, their daughter Angela had become ill sometime in early May 1990. The principal of Olathe Elementary School had contacted the Department of Social Services after the child failed to show up for school for eight days. The principal had heard conflicting stories about Angela's illness; some people had told her the child was not sick and was simply staying home, but others said the little girl was very ill. The principal finally called Angela's parents herself. Angela has the flu, they told her.
A social worker subsequently made three visits to the Sweet home. A public-health nurse accompanied her on at least one of those occasions. Instead of asking to examine Angela, the nurse "just stood back and asked her (Mrs. Sweet) questions about Angela's health," a sheriff's investigator noted.
The Sweets were convinced Angela had the flu because her sister, who was two years older, had been sick with the flu around the same time. Barbara Sweet put cold compresses on Angela's forehead and made her drink lots of fluids and eat soft foods. But the child did not appear to improve. One of Angela's first-grade classmates saw her outside a baseball game about two weeks before she died; Angela was sitting in the backseat of her parents' car and didn't have much to say. "Angela looked like she had been, or was, sick and looked like she had lost some weight," the schoolmate's parents later told deputies. On June 27, nearly two months after Angela had come down with the 'flu,' she died.
When sheriff's deputies arrived at her home, she was lying on a single bed in the front room, covered with a sheet. Her body was taken to Montrose Memorial Hospital, where Dr. Thomas Canfield performed an autopsy. He realized immediately that Angela didn't have the flu. Her appendix had ruptured and she had died from peritonitis, an infection of the lining of the abdominal cavity.
The case was forwarded to Mike Stern, who was then the district attorney of Montrose County. He was appalled by the circumstances of Angela's death. "It was a tragedy, a tragic loss," he says.
Stern struggled with the question of whether the couple should be criminally prosecuted. He knew that there would be obstacles: contradictory laws, as well as the fact that the social worker and nurse had apparently failed to detect Angela's life-threatening condition. And then there were the parents themselves -- good, decent people. "They were not on a par with armed robbers," he says. "They thought they were acting in their daughter's best interest."
Ultimately, Stern decided to charge the Sweets with one felony count of child abuse. The couple tried to get the case dismissed on constitutional grounds but were unsuccessful. Eventually they received a three-year deferred sentence.
After reviewing the file Mike Stern had compiled almost a decade before on Angela Sweet and reading the case law, Frank Daniels invited Mindy and Josh Glory to his office on the second floor of the Mesa County courthouse annex. Josh, then 23, was handsome in a Garth Brooks sort of way, with jet-black hair, tight blue jeans and a cowboy hat. Mindy, 22, had long blond hair and open, regular features. Both were tall and slender. "They were the nicest couple you'd ever want to meet," says Daniels.
The Glorys were firm in their belief that what they had done was in the best interest of their son. And now they were prepared for the worst. "They have a belief system that is infallible," says Daniels. "If they pray and the child gets better, it's God's will. If they pray and the child dies, then God is calling the person back home."
The couple's ties to the Church of the First Born stretched back at least five generations, and their contact with the medical profession had been minimal.
Josh was a carpenter and had injured himself several times on the job. Once, after he cut his finger, his boss ordered him to the hospital to have it stitched up. But the next time he injured himself -- accidentally cutting his leg with an electrical saw -- he went home instead. His boss later told sheriff's deputies that he thought Josh -- "his second best worker" -- would have been back on the job the following day if he had received proper medical treatment.
In Oklahoma, where they lived for a while before returning to Grand Junction, Josh had fallen and broken two ribs. Mindy had called for the elders. "My husband was pretty much gone, and we thought that his ribs had punctured one of his lungs since he couldn't breathe and he was gasping for air," Mindy told a sheriff's investigator. "Then after the elders prayed for him, he was lots better." In that same interview, Mindy admitted that she was a bit frightened of doctors and hospitals. "I just don't like 'em," she says.
When the deputies went to the Glorys' trailer to collect evidence, they found a note tucked into Josh's Bible citing passages in which the faithful were warned away from doctors. The apostle Mark speaks of a woman who "had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered but rather grew worse" and was healed only after she touched Jesus's garment. In II Chronicles, a severely diseased king who "sought not to the lord, but to the physicians" wound up dying at a relatively young age.
Although Frank Daniels was impressed by the candor of Mindy and Josh Glory, he told them he was going to have to indict them on several counts of child abuse resulting in the death of their son. The two young people seemed to take the news rather stoically. "I got the impression that they would have been disappointed if I hadn't charged them," Daniels remembers. "Martyrdom seems to be something that goes along with their actions."
The Glorys subsequently pleaded guilty to a felony count of criminally negligent child abuse; they were placed on probation for sixteen years and ordered to provide medical care for their surviving daughter in the event of serious injury or a life-threatening illness.
Eventually, they moved from their trailer to a smaller town outside of Grand Junction. At the Pea Green cemetery, they buried their son beneath a tombstone that reads, "Our Little Wrangler -- Asleep with Jesus."
After the Glorys were indicted on child-abuse charges, members of the First Assembly and Church of the First Born found themselves facing television cameras on their way in and out of church. Many thought the media stories were biased and insulting -- particularly those that described their religion as a "sect" or "cult." The church's origins date back to the 1700s, its members proudly point out, and the practices and beliefs are taken directly from the King James Bible.
Two to three times a week, members of the First Assembly and Church of the First Born file into their churches to pray. According to a 1997 directory, about 285 families belong to the seven First Born churches scattered throughout Colorado; the largest congregations are in Grand Junction and nearby Delta. The churches are located mostly in rural areas -- next to fruit orchards, across the street from corn fields -- and their members are ranchers, mechanics, businesspeople, farmers. The churches themselves are exceedingly simple. There are no organs or pianos, no stained glass or incense, not even a cross in some. Instead of tithing, members pass the hat when repairs need to be done.
The services are long, lasting at least two hours, and consist of a combination of hymns, prayers and impromptu sermons. In between, there are long moments of silence, during which the outer world seems to drift away. Many children are present; theirs are often the only voices that break the silence.
Anyone who is moved to do so can begin a hymn, pray, or walk to the podium and deliver a sermon. Filled with contrapuntal harmonies, the hymns evoke an earlier America and are filled with the suffering in this world and the glad promise of the next. To members of the First Born, Heaven is real, and so are the hot burning flames of Hell. Just as there exists a merciful God, so, too, exists Satan, who is constantly on the prowl, tempting the faithful with carnal pleasures.
The women are encouraged to stay home and raise their children. They dress in modest, calf-length skirts and do not cut their hair. This belief derives mainly from the eleventh chapter of the First Corinthians, which states: "a woman...brings shame on her head if she prays or prophesies bare-headed; it is as bad as if her head were shaved."
After the services are over, the members often stand and greet each other with a "holy kiss," a gesture that symbolizes their love for the church and for each other. On special occasions such as baptisms, they will wash each other's feet, and occasionally someone will speak in tongues.
First Born members don't drink, smoke or believe in divorce. Modern medicine, they say, was put on earth for those who don't have their strong faith. If one of their members does go to a doctor, he is not banned forever from the church, but must repent of his ways.
Some members wear hearing aids and eyeglasses and even false teeth, but these are viewed more like canes than bona fide medical devices. Others shun even dentists, and their mouths gape with holes where teeth were pulled without benefit of Novocain.
The reliance on prayer alone enriches their faith and brings them closer to God. They call upon God to heal rashes, headaches and the flu, as well as more serious ailments such as heart disease and cancer. Even pain itself is experienced differently.
When one of their children is ill, so profound and complete is their faith in God's healing power that the idea of calling upon a mere mortal -- a physician -- never enters their minds.
Time gets distorted during emergencies. It speeds up when the room is crowded with people and everybody's talking and praying and crying at once, and then slows down horribly in the moment when death slithers in.
Barbara Reed, 24, and her husband, Billy, 31, had been eagerly awaiting the birth of their fifth child. They had three other living children, ages five, three and one; a fourth, age two, had burned to death in a fire a month earlier. Esther Byers, the "helper" who'd delivered Warren Glory, and several other First Born helpers were on hand to assist Barbara. On the morning of July 7, after only a few hard pushes, Billy Ray Reed, weighing a little over five pounds, slipped easily from his mother's womb. Fat-cheeked and hungry, the infant "pinked up" right away and began to nurse.
Like the Glorys, the couple had a constant stream of visitors to their trailer over the next two days. Church members believe new mothers need about ten days of bedrest after giving birth, so several women from the church took turns taking care of the baby while Barbara recuperated.
Everything seemed normal at first, but early Sunday morning Billy noticed that his newborn son was having a hard time catching his breath. "All our other kids seemed like they had done the same thing, and then everything was fine," he told Mesa County Sheriff's investigator G. A. Barley. "It was like they got colicky or something in their throat and they needed to spit up, and then everything was fine."
Billy was concerned enough, though, to wake up Barbara and tell her about the problem. She checked the baby thoroughly and noticed that his hands and feet seemed a little cold, so she turned off the swamp cooler and began rubbing them. When the infant continued to whimper, she called her mother and asked her what colicky babies looked like. Then she called Esther Byers, who in turn contacted Lenora Hermann, another helper who was present at Billy Ray's birth and had assisted in the delivery of seventy infants.
Hermann and her husband, an elder in the church, decided to drive over and have a look for themselves. Hermann thought the baby's color was poor, so the Reeds decided to summon the elders. When the elders arrived, they each said a prayer for the baby, then anointed the infant's head with oil and prayed again. An hour later, the baby seemed fine. "His skin got warm, he appeared to be acting normally, and he was not whimpering or crying," Barbara told investigators.
Later that afternoon, Billy Ray took a turn for the worse. Clarice Faith Anderson, another friend who had dropped by, noticed that the baby, who was in his mother's lap, was not breathing. Anderson, who is certified in CPR, laid the child on the floor and began trying to revive him. She warned the parents that CPR would only work if "it was God's will."
For ten minutes, she breathed into his mouth and then did light compressions of his chest. When the baby's fingers and face turned blue, Anderson knew he was dead. The elders returned and again prayed over the baby, who was lying on a blue flannel blanket. But it was too late.
Autopsy duties fell once again to Dr. Kurtzman, the Mesa County coroner, whose laboratory is located at Community Hospital in Grand Junction. He discovered that the child had a rather common congenital heart defect that normally is easily detected and repaired; Billy Ray might have survived had he received timely medical attention. Kurtzman wanted to rule the death a homicide, but ultimately decided against it because he didn't know for sure if the infant's symptoms had been severe enough for his parents to recognize, or if medical intervention definitely would have prevented the death. Still, in his report he noted: "If provided with basic medical care at the first recognized sign of distress, it would have been highly improbable that this infant would have died, and the manner of death appears most consistent with a homicide."
After the funeral, Billy Ray was taken to the Pea Green cemetery and buried next to his brother, John, who had died in the fire. More company would arrive a few days later, when the entourage bearing Ishmael Berger Belebbas wound its way up to the bluff.
A couple of days before Ruth Berger Belebbas went into labor, friends remembered seeing her on her front porch, waving and then patting her stomach happily, as if to say, "Any day now." On a hot steaming morning in mid-July, that day arrived. But something went terribly wrong during the delivery, and the baby got stuck by the shoulders in the birth canal.
By the time Montrose County sheriff's deputies arrived on July 17, the baby was dead, and Ruth herself was in grave danger of dying. Tad Rowan, an emergency medical technician supervisor, begged Ruth to get medical help. Still competent and alert, she refused. "Ruth acknowledged her condition, she said that she understood, and then said it's all in God's hands," investigator Scott Wagner later wrote.
Wagner then tried to impress upon Ruth the gravity of the situation, warning her that she was likely to die without medical help. But Ruth could not be dissuaded. "Ruth told me that she understood, and that if she died it was God's will, and that she was prepared for whatever God had planned for her," Wagner noted.
The deputies contacted the district attorney's office and were told that as long as the baby was undelivered and the mother was still competent and refusing medical treatment, nothing could be done legally. So Wagner informed Ruth that if she changed her mind, the sheriff's department would return and provide her with whatever assistance she needed. "I then spoke with Ruth's father and mother and they assured me that if Ruth decided that she wanted medical care, they would assist her in contacting us," he wrote in his report.
The following day, someone called the sheriff's department and said that the baby had been removed from Ruth's birth canal. Mike Benziger, a deputy coroner, ruled the death a "still birth" and decided not to do an autopsy. The infant was placed in a small, white casket and taken to the sheriff's department, where he was officially declared dead on July 18. "You know, turning that child would have been a piece of cake," says Rayleene Lang, a department spokeswoman.
The deaths of Angela Sweet, Warren Trevette Glory, Billy Ray Reed and Ismael Berger Belebbas are only the tip of the iceberg, says Rita Swan, founder of Children's Health Care is a Legal Duty, or CHILD, an organization based in Sioux City, Iowa. Since 1974, at least 35 children whose parents belong to First Born congregations in Colorado have died, Swan estimates, "And I'm sure we don't catch them all."
Together with physician Seth Asser, Swan wrote a paper published in a 1998 edition of Pediatrics examining 172 child deaths that occurred between 1975 and 1995 to parents of various religious organizations. Of those children, 140 had a better than 90 percent chance of surviving if medical care had been provided, Asser and Swan determined. In addition to the First Born and Christian Scientist churches, other religious groups with significant death rates were the End Time Ministries, Faith Assembly and Faith Tabernacle.
Swan herself was a devout follower of Christian Science when her seventeen-month-old son, Matthew, became gravely ill. A church practitioner was summoned and began "treatments"; when the baby went into convulsions, the practitioner said he was "gritting his teeth" because he was planning "some great achievement." On day twelve, the practitioner told the Swans the child might have a broken bone. Since Christian Scientists are allowed to go to doctors for the setting of broken bones, they rushed their child to the hospital.
Matthew was diagnosed with an advanced case of spinal meningitis. After a week in intensive care, he passed away. From the doctors, Rita Swan learned that all the signs the Christian Science practitioner had viewed as promising were in reality signs of impending disaster. "We knew that Matthew trusted us for everything, and we felt that we had betrayed him," she says.
Swan's anger turned into activism; through her writings, Web site and lawsuits, she has become a powerful force in persuading states to repeal statutes that exempt parents from being prosecuted for murder and manslaughter, or even charged with abuse and neglect, if they rely on only spiritual prayer to heal their sick and ailing children. "Christian Scientists present themselves as upper-middle class, educated, politically conservative, high-status people," she says. "Legislators don't seem to comprehend that what they're asking for is quite fanatical. They are asking for a religious defense to murder."
But Bob Doughtie, who heads the Christian Science committee on publication in Colorado and spent more than two decades as an Air Force chaplain, explains that the church merely wants the law to recognize different approaches to healing. Through prayer alone, thousands of Christian Scientists have been healed of minor injuries, as well as serious ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, he says. Such healings are deeply valued by Christian Scientists because they not only provide immediate physical relief but also a glimpse of the deeper spiritual reality that underlies everything. "We have our failures, just as the medical profession has had failures," acknowledges Doughtie.
Although the courts have consistently recognized the right of an adult to refuse life-sustaining treatment, Swan argues that this right does not mean that parents or guardians can deny a child the right to medical care. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in a 1944: "Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children."
After Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in 1974, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare required states receiving grants for treatment and prevention of child abuse to enact laws exempting parents who use spiritual healing from child abuse and neglect statutes. Those blanket exemptions -- which Swan says were passed largely as a result of lobbying by the Christian Science Church -- are now slowly being repealed, state by state.
The first effort to amend the Colorado law was undertaken in 1989 by Bill Owens, then a state senator from Aurora, who argued that the loophole should be closed in part because of tragic cases like that of Jessica Ann Lybarger. The five-week-old infant had died of pneumonia in 1982 in a house located across the street from a hospital; Jessica's father, Jon Lybarger, the minister of a church called Jesus Through Jon and Judy, was subsequently charged with felony child abuse. Lybarger went to trial three times for the crime. The first two trials ended in convictions that were subsequently overturned by the state Supreme Court, and the third ended in a mistrial. According to Larimer County District Attorney Stuart Van Meveren, the church of Jesus Through Jon and Judy had about fifteen members and gradually "disintegrated."
The original legislation crafted by Owens was good, Swan says, but the Christian Scientists lobbied so heavily that Owens "crumbled" and redrafted the bill. State senator Dottie Wham, a fellow Republican, says, "It was the Christian Scientists who came in very determined that their method of healing not be outlawed by the state."
The revised legislation, which was subsequently enacted into law, seems tailor-made for Christian Scientists. A "recognized method of religious healing" is defined as one in which fees for prayer treatment can be deducted from income taxes or reimbursed by insurance carriers -- Christian Scientists can do both -- or if the prayer sessions have a success rate that is equivalent to standard medical care. Troy Eid, chief counsel for Owens, says the governor accepted the language exempting the Christian Scientists because the entire bill was in jeopardy of being defeated. "Governor Owens wishes he had the votes in 1989 to completely close the exemption, and he would support an effort to do so again."
The revised statute was still better than what had been previously on the books because it essentially prevents 99 percent of people from raising the spiritual prayer defense in child abuse and neglect cases, Eid adds. But Rita Swan says the language has only made things more confusing. "The Colorado law," she says, "is written so that you can get an exemption from murder charges if the IRS allows bills for prayer to be deducted from your income taxes and insurance companies will reimburse you for the bills from prayers."
In 1993, there was a second effort to amend the child abuse and neglect statutes, but that legislation was also defeated as a result of heavy lobbying by religious groups. Mike Stern, the former Montrose County district attorney who prosecuted David and Barbara Sweet, says the bill would have given parents who treat their children by spiritual means "clear notice of what the boundaries are and what was allowable under Colorado law."
According to Wham, such legislation is extremely difficult to pass because it touches on several fundamental rights, including religious freedom and parental autonomy. "It's a terrible thing for lawmakers to sort out," she says. "But the day will come when the legislature will choose to repeal that exemption."
Swan is convinced that if the law is made clear enough, all parents will obey and child deaths will decrease. But members of the First Born Church say they answer to a higher law. "We believe in man's law 100 percent," says one, "except when it interferes with God's law."
"You know, God didn't say he was going to heal everybody. Not everybody is going to get healed. But there are medicines that don't heal, either," says Helen Berger, who lives in a large farmhouse outside Olathe that is surrounded by corn fields and bean fields.
Helen is the grandmother of Ishmael Berger Belebbas, the full-term infant who died at birth. Her face is a study in contrasts: uncanny blue eyes that make her look younger than her years and the gap-toothed smile of a rigorous adherent to the First Born tenets. Although she is sad about losing her grandson, her faith remains unshaken. "The best mommas lose their babies," she says. "They are portrayed as neglectful parents when really, they were awful good parents. It was just their lot in life."
Later, she adds, "Once in a while a child dies. It's not because of anything that could have been done. It was simply their time."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.