Sectual Discrimination

Rebecca and David Corneau of Attleboro, Massachusetts, are Christian fundamentalists who belong to a small sect called The Body. Like Christian Scientists, they reject modern medical care in accordance with their religious beliefs. Unlike Christian Scientists, they are being deprived of all rights to raise a family.

In the fall of 1999 -- after their infant son allegedly died shortly after birth because he was denied medical care -- the Corneaus' three daughters were taken from their home and placed in the custody of relatives. The following fall, the then pregnant Rebecca was incarcerated and forced to give birth in custody; her baby girl was also taken by the state. The Corneaus, who claim that their infant son was stillborn, are currently engaged in a legal battle to regain custody of their children.

That battle escalated recently when Massachusetts officials "accused" Rebecca of giving birth to a sixth child. The Corneaus initially refused to confirm or deny this charge, which seems to have been based on changes in Rebecca's appearance and statements from neighbors who claim to have seen her leaving her home in labor. No one testified to the child's existence, and police did not find a baby during a search of the Corneaus' home. In January, however, a juvenile-court judge awarded the Department of Social Services temporary custody of the alleged newborn and ordered Rebecca Corneau jailed for contempt if she refused to bring the phantom child to court. On February 5, the Corneaus told the court that Rebecca had miscarried. Judge Kenneth P. Nasif imprisoned them both for contempt, observing that he could not confirm their claim without evidence of a fetus.

The prosecution of the Corneaus is zealous, but not entirely arbitrary. State officials have reason to fear for the welfare of children whose parents belong to The Body: Sect leader Jacques Robidoux and his wife Karen are being prosecuted for murder in the apparent starvation of their 10-month-old son Samuel in 1999. (He was allegedly fed
only almond milk, in response to a vision from God.) The Corneaus' infant son was buried in secret with Samuel Robidoux, his cousin. The Department of Social Services gained custody of the Corneaus' three daughters after civil proceedings under a child-abuse-and-neglect statute.

Still, this case would generate outrage or, at least, considerably more controversy if the Corneaus were not identified as "cultists." No one has a religious right to harm a child. (Abraham would not have had a First Amendment defense for terrorizing Isaac.) But no one loses the right to raise children because of an association with a suspect religious group. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is proceeding as if membership in The Body strips people of the right to parenthood. It has stopped just short of requiring the Corneaus to be sterilized.

Compare the Corneau case to the 1990 prosecution of another Massachusetts couple, Christian Scientists David and Ginger Twitchell. They were convicted of involuntary man-slaughter for failing to provide their two-year-old son, Robyn, with medical treatment that could have saved his life. Robyn suffered from peritonitis, but instead of calling a doctor, the Twitchells retained a Christian Science healer and prayed over their son until he died. They were apparently acting in good faith.

The prosecution of the Twitchells for homicide was quite controversial because the fatal neglect of their child was mandated by their religious beliefs. The Commonwealth's Supreme Judicial Court reversed the Twitchells' conviction in 1993 (ruling that their right to present a defense had been unduly restricted), but the SJC made clear that parents
do not have a religious right to deny their children essential medical care. Still, state officials do not seek to prohibit Christian Scientists from bearing children or retaining
custody of them, although a belief that illness should be treated with prayer, not medical intervention, is central to their faith.

Indeed, the Twitchells -- who were proved to have caused the death of their son, however inadvertently -- were treated with much greater leniency than the Corneaus were. After being convicted of manslaughter, they were not incarcerated; they did not lose custody of their surviving children and were not enjoined from having any more children. Instead, the Twitchells were placed on probation for 10 years and required to submit their other three children to periodic medical checkups and to seek medical care for any of them showing signs of serious illness. As far as I know, police have never searched the Twitchells' house (or the houses of other Christian Science couples) to determine whether or not they are harboring infants who may or may not exist and may or may not require medical care.

Americans who pride themselves on the religiosity of our country and its pluralistic tradition should consider the disparate treatment of the Corneaus and the Twitchells. If our respect for religious pluralism were genuine, members of established churches like Christian Science would not enjoy greater protection than do members of small sects, which are denigrated as "cults." All parents, of any or no religion, would be prohibited from denying their children medical care and could be prosecuted for homicide if any of their children died because of intentional medical neglect. But no parents would be presumed to be abusive, neglectful, or otherwise unfit and denied the right to raise their children because of their religious beliefs.

Rebecca Corneau is being treated like a criminal because she is suspected of having given birth. What can millions of women say but mea culpa?