When 2-year-old Kent Schaible fell ill in January 2009, his parents prayed for him to get well.
The question put to a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury today is: Should Herbert and Catherine Schaible also have sought medical care for Kent before he died of bacterial pneumonia?
In a case that calls for the jury to dissect the boundaries of parental responsibility, religion and the law, the involuntary manslaughter trial of the Rhawnhurst couple began this morning.
"A 2-year-old doesn't have the wherewithal to say, 'Mommy, Daddy, I'm sick I need to go to a doctor,'" said Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore in her opening statement to the jury.
"A simple visit to the doctor, a prescription and that little boy could have been with us today," Pescatore added.
Lawyers for the couple, however, argued that the boy's symptoms were not any different from those of the common cold or flu and that the Schaibles are being prosecuted because they belong to a fundamentalist Christian church that believes in the power of prayer and faith healing instead of medical care.
"If we don't get through the emotion we will never get to the reason that this child passed away," said Bobby Hoof, the attorney for Herbert Schaible, 42. "We are not here to discuss religion, we're here to discuss why this child passed away."
Mythri Jaraman, the lawyer for Catherine Schaible, 41, argued in her opening that Schaible's religion does not play a role in the charge against her because the prosecution cannot prove a key element of involuntary manslaughter: that she knew, or should have known, Kent "faced a substantial risk of death. She is being charged with letting Kent die."
"Not this DA, not Mr. Hoof, not the state and not any one of us loves Kent Schaible any more than his mother," Jaraman added.
Both defense lawyers told the jury that visits to the Schaible house after Kent's death by a nurse and social workers showed no signs of neglect or abuse for the couple's other children.
The Schaibles are members of the First Century Gospel Church, founded in 1925 and now located at 4557 G St. in Juniata Park.
This is not the first time that the church and its members have run afoul the law over its belief in faith healing over medicine.
In 1993 Philadelphia officials got a court order against another couple after they prayed over their 12-year-old son at home instead of getting him to an emergency room after he was hit by a car and seriously injured.
And in 1991, the church and another fundamentalist congregation, Faith Tabernacle of Nicetown, came under scrutiny after eight children died during a Philadelphia measles epidemic when members resisted vaccinating their children.