Dad fights Jehovah's Witnesses over daughter's death

March 1, 2006

CALGARY, Alberta (AP) -- A grieving father said he would continue his crusade against Jehovah's Witnesses and their prohibition against blood transfusions after a court decision partially cleared the way for an $800,000 wrongful death lawsuit.

Lawrence Hughes filed the claim on behalf of his 17-year-old daughter, Bethany, who died from acute myeloid leukemia in 2002. She repeatedly refused conventional treatment for her leukemia because of her religious beliefs.

Hughes, as executor of her estate, blames the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the religious order that governs the faith, for influencing his daughter to believe that the Bible forbids blood transfusions.

"This is a great day for justice. This is a great day for children," Hughes told a news conference Tuesday after a judge ruled he could proceed with part of his case.

"The court is saying that a religious sect or cult can be held responsible for the injury they inflict on others, whether it relates to deliberately giving out misleading medical information or using institutional coercion which results in the death of a child," Hughes said.

The tightly disciplined religious sect believes the Bible forbids transfusions, though specifics have gradually been eased over the years.

Filed in 2004, Hughes' suit had stalled in the courts as defendants tried to have it thrown out. However, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Patricia Rowbotham ruled Friday that a scaled-down version of the claim could move forward.

Though Hughes cannot proceed with his claim against the Watch Tower Society, he can move head with a suit against two lawyers, Shane Heath Brady and David Miles Gnam , who acted for both Bethany and her mother, Arliss , when they fought the transfusions in court and also represent the society. Both lawyers are Jehovah's Witnesses.

Rowbotham dismissed the claim against the Watch Tower Society because, she said, the lawsuit did not question the sincerity of Bethany 's belief, rather it attacked religious doctrine of the faith. She ruled the court could not be arbiters of religious dogma.

Hughes said he had not ruled out an appeal to allow him to proceed against the Watch Tower Society, but he considers his case against the lawyers a coup.

Rowbotham wrote in her ruling that because of their own beliefs, the lawyers were not in a position to advise Bethany in an objective manner that would enable her to make a free, informed decision on whether to have blood transfusions.

Brady dismisses that notion.

"It's just silly and irrelevant to the action," he told The Associated Press from his Ontario office. "That's akin to saying that the NAACP can't represent people with certain religious or ethnic beliefs," he said, referring to the U.S. civil rights organization National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Bethany 's illness garnered nationwide attention and renewed public debate over how to determine when a child should be able to choose medical care.

Canada 's Charter of Rights allows those 18 and older to decide, but medical ethics dictate that mature children should be allowed to decide unless their competence has been compromised. Several doctors found Bethany to be mature enough to choose her treatment.

However, her father left the church and petitioned the court to enforce the transfusions. The court ruled she was pressured by her religion and didn't have a free, informed will.

The Alberta government won temporary custody of Bethany , and she was given almost 40 transfusions against her will -- though she succumbed to leukemia in the end.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press . All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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