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Blair couple's faith healing appeal denied

Tuesday, May 01, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. -- The U.S. Supreme Court said yesterday that it won't hear the appeal of a Blair County couple who spurned medicine, put their trust in faith healing and lost two of their 13 children to treatable illnesses.

Barring a last-resort appeal, Dennis and Lorie Nixon will go off sometime in the next 30 days to spend 21/2 to five years in state prisons, leaving behind their Hollidaysburg-area house and 10 children still living at home.

Thus would begin the penalty phase in a social enigma. The Nixons oversee a near-model of the all-American family -- well-scrubbed, tightly bound and straitlaced. But they break the law, prosecutors say, by defiantly holding to their church code, rejecting medicine as an affront to God's will, even when it costs their children's lives.

"It's a very nice family for all intents and purposes," Blair County District Attorney David Gorman said yesterday, an hour after getting the court decision. "But the fact that they did nothing is an abdication of parental responsibilities."

"It's something you leave in God's hands," Dennis Nixon said of the prospect of going to prison. "If it's something he allows, you go with it."

Dennis Nixon, 45, is vice president of a 75-employee Altoona company that manufactures doors. His wife is 49 and, following church practice, a housewife. They are among 140 members of Faith Tabernacle Congregation in Altoona, a discreet, half-century-old congregation of which Dennis Nixon's father is the pastor.

The Nixons and Faith Tabernacle thrived largely in obscurity until 1991, when son Clayton Nixon, 8, died of an ear infection that doctors said could have been cured by antibiotics. Dennis and Lorie Nixon pleaded no contest to endangering the welfare of a child and were sentenced to 125 hours of community service.

The case the Supreme Court rejected yesterday involved the death of daughter Shannon Nixon, 16, in 1996 of diabetes acidosis, a treatable condition that sent her blood sugar levels soaring more than 12 times above normal levels. Her family fasted, prayed over her and anointed her. The teen-ager told her parents: "I feel I had my victory." But she lapsed into a coma and died, never seen by a doctor.

In 1997, as Lorie Nixon was pregnant with the couple's 13th child, a Blair County jury convicted them of involuntary manslaughter and endangering children. The jury rejected defense arguments that Shannon Nixon, three days short of her 17th birthday when she died, was old enough to make her own decisions.

Judge Norman Callan delivered the sentence, writing: "They are good, family people. Except they endanger the well-being of their children by failing to seek medical treatment when their children need it."

"Religious freedom cannot shield criminal conduct," Callan said.

Pittsburgh lawyer Sally Frick carried the case to the Supreme Court, hoping to convince justices that Shannon Nixon had the right to refuse care and that prosecution was an impingement on religious liberty.

There remains a chance that she could argue an issue such as whether the Nixons' previous attorneys offered inadequate counsel, Frick said.

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