The state appeals court overturned a $9.15 million award against the Christian Science Church for the death of a boy whose mother treated his diabetes with prayer.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals' 2-1 decision said the Boston-based First Church of Christ, Scientist, does not have to pay $9 million in punitive damages or $150,000 in compensatory damages to 11-year-old Ian Lundman's father.The church's spiritual healing is protected by the Constitution, and the church did not act in "deliberate disregard" of Ian's rights, the ruling said.
However, the court upheld $1.5 million in compensatory damages against Ian's mother and stepfather, Kathleen and William McKown, and two practitioners they hired to provide spiritual treatment. The McKowns had a duty to protect the boy from harm, and the practitioners should have overruled the parents' wishes and sought medical help, the panel said.
Douglass Lundman sued the church and five members, saying Ian could have been successfully treated up until two hours before his death on May 9, 1989, after he lapsed into a diabetic coma.
The Christian Science Church was ordered by a Hennepin County jury in August 1993 to pay the punitive damages. The McKowns, the church and several church representatives also were assessed $5.2 million for compensatory damages, although a county judge later reduced that award to $1.5 million.
It was the first successful civil verdict against the 116-year-old church, which believes "scientific prayer" is the sole way to treat illness.
Church leaders argued they should not be punished for practicing a central tenet of their faith, and the appeals court agreed.
"The constitutional right to religious freedom includes the authority of churches to independently decide matters of faith and doctrine," the court wrote.