The deputy medical examiner knew before knocking on the door. There was a grim scene waiting for Eric Tonsfeldt inside the single-story house set among the pine trees outside of Oregon City, Ore. — a tragedy that had played out there before.
It was around 8:45 on March 5, 2017, and the Clackamas County official was responding to a report of a dead newborn.
The child had not been delivered in a hospital. She wasn’t attended to by doctors and nurses. The baby died amid the murmured prayers of friends and family. But Tonsfeldt knew — as everyone else in the county and many beyond all the way up to the state legislature — that this was a familiar occurrence with members of the Followers of Christ Church, a faith-healing sect numbering around 1,000 members.
The Mitchells are the fifth set of parents from the Followers of Christ Church to face criminal charges after failing to secure medical attention for their children in the past nine years, according to the prosecutor.
“For far too long, children in this church have been needlessly suffering and dying because their parents, as a condition of their religious beliefs, have refused to seek medical care for their children,” the district attorney’s office stated. “And for the past 17½ years, the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office has been working diligently to hold criminally responsible any parents who fail to provide adequate medical care for their children which causes their death or serious physical injury.”
“They believe that God heals, which all Christians believe, but they take it a step further, thinking that God always heals,” religion columnist Jonathan Merritt told The Washington Post in 2015. “Most Christians have not interpreted scripture as a sort of universal promise that faith will always lead to healing. But there are some popular movements in America that still hold those views. Even those movements, however, don’t believe you should withhold medicine; they believe medicine is used as a conduit to healing.”