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Court Bars Lawsuit Against Christian Science Church in Michigan Death

October 30, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today barred a lawsuit against the Christian Science church in the death of a 15-month-old Michigan boy who died of meningitis.

The justices, without comment, let stand a ruling that a suit against the church and its members over faith healing would violate their religious freedom.

The case stems from the death of Matthew Swan on July 7, 1977, from brain abscesses caused by meningitis.

His parents, Douglas and Rita Swan of Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., were lifelong adherents of Christian Science at the time of their son’s death.

They were advised by two Christian Science healers, Jeanne Laitner and June Ahearn, to rely on religious faith when Matthew developed a raging fever about three weeks before he died.

After their son’s death, the Swans sued the two healers and the church, alleging negligence. The suit said, among other things, that the healers made inaccurate diagnoses and coerced the parents to forgo seeking medical help.

The church was accused of negligence for failing to train the healers properly.

A Michigan state judge threw out the suit, and the dismissal was upheld by a state appeals court in 1986.

By that time, the Swans had withdrawn from the case and were replaced as plaintiffs by a representative of their child’s estate.

The appeals court said constitutionally protected yreligious freedom outweighs, in this case, the state’s interest in protecting children.

″Religious conduct is permissible and protected unless the state can show a compelling state interest in interfering with the conduct,″ the state court said. ″Even then, the state must act in the least restrictive manner. We find no merit in (the) argument that ...(a negligence suit) is the least restrictive means of regulating spiritual healing practices.″

Lawyers representing Matthew Swan’s estate said the Michigan ruling conflicts with others that have allowed churches and their officials to be sued.

For example, they cited a suit against the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church by two former California members who say they were duped into joining it.

The Supreme Court last May refused to block that suit, rejecting an appeal by the Unification Church.

The justices in the past have declined to review cases of alleged clergy malpractice and those in which faith healing practices are at issue.

The case is Brown vs. Laitner, 89-354.

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