May 24th, 2013
05:22 PM ET
By Sarah Hoye, CNN
Philadelphia (CNN)–When Brandon Schaible got a rash, his parents prayed.
When the 7-month-old became irritable with diarrhea and lost his appetite, his parents, Catherine and Herbert Schaible, prayed again.
When Brandon had trouble breathing and gasped for air, his parents called a pastor - this, in spite of the fact that a judge had ordered them to call a doctor.
Brandon Schaible died on April 18 from bacterial pneumonia, dehydration and strep, according to the district attorney’s office – all treatable with antibiotics.
On Wednesday his parents were charged with third-degree murder.
The Schaibles are lifelong members of the First Century Gospel Church in Philadelphia, one of several religious groups in the U.S. that relies on faith, and eschews most medical care.
Founded in 1925, the First Century Gospel Church is an offshoot of Faith Tabernacle Congregation, also in Philadelphia. Both churches believe that God - and God alone - heals the sick.
“Herbert’s a father like anyone else. He’s hurt and he’s mourning the death of his son,” said Bobby Hoof, Herbert Schaible’s attorney. “He’s not snubbing his nose at the court. He’s incarcerated because of his faith.”
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams says the Schaibles’ failure to seek medical attention resulted in the death of their son.
“Instead of caring and nurturing him,” Williams said, “they ultimately caused his death by praying over his body instead of taking him to the doctor.”
The Schaibles are also charged with involuntary manslaughter, conspiracy and endangering the welfare of a child. In April, the couple admitted to police that their son had exhibited symptoms for several days before he died.
On Friday, Court of Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner ordered the Schaibles held without bail out of fear they were a flight risk.
“When this happened the first time around, the Schaibles had every reason to believe that, because of their faith, they had done nothing wrong,” Lerner said. “I know they’re not ‘sophisticated criminals’ … but the circumstances have changed.”
The Schaibles are already on probation for the 2009 death of another son, Kent, who died from bacterial pneumonia. A jury convicted the couple of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced them to 10 years probation.
Lerner said he was concerned that pastors and members in “churches like the Schaibles” would harbor them.
In a media interview last month, Pastor Nelson Clark of the First Century Gospel Church, said the Brandon and Ken Schaible died because of their parents’ “spiritual lack.”
Mythri Jayaraman, Catherine Schaible's attorney, called her a "completely devoted mother."
“The charges suggest a level of callousness that doesn’t fit who Catherine is,” Jayaraman said.
In addition to Pennsylvania, faith healing deaths have been prosecuted in Michigan, Indiana and Massachusetts.
According to Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD), a nonprofit child advocacy group, at least 30 children have died since 1971 in Pennsylvania as a result of a parent's refusal to seek medical treatment because of their belief in faith healing.
Among the 30 are six children who died in 1991 from a measles outbreak in Philadelphia, all whom were born into families that belonged to either First Century Gospel Church or Faith Tabernacle.
“It’s a terrible conflict for these parents. They love their children and can see their child suffering,” said Rita Swan, president of CHILD. “If the laws were clearer, many of these parents would be relived of the pressure. As for the Schaibles, they are remarkably stubborn and extreme.”
Swan began advocating for the removal of religious exemptions from immunizations and parental legal requirements after her son Matthew died in 1977 from bacterial meningitis. She and her husband had relied on Christian Science practitioners to heal him.
“The poor child couldn’t lift an arm,” Swan said. “We prayed, we went to the practitioner. We trusted them.”
For members of faith-healing sects, it is common to believe that sickness is a result of unresolved sin or lack of faith, said Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Faith-healing sects often interpret the Bible literally, citing, for example, Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul … Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases.”
First Century Gospel Church’s website reinforces that theme, citing the New Testament’s Book of Acts, “By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus' name, and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.”
Other religious groups believe that God can heal the sick, and many believers pray to be delivered from illness. The difference is that they, unlike the Schaibles, often seek medical attention in addition to prayer, Butler said.
First Assistant District Attorney Edward McCann says the Schaibles’ actions, not beliefs, are the problem.
“How many kids have to die before it becomes an extreme indifference to the value of human life?” McCann asked. “They killed one child already.”
If convicted of third-degree murder in Brandon’s death, the Schaibles could face a maximum sentence of 50 years in prison, Lerner said. They also face an additional 7 to 14 years if a judge decides to revoke their probation in Kent’s death.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.