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Religion or child neglect?

A 16-year-old Lake City youth almost starved to death over a three-month period, apparently because his parents' religious beliefs kept them from seeking medical care for the youth. And for the second time in two years, law enforcement authorities in this rural North Florida county find themselves trying to determine when religious practice ends and crime begins.

State Attorney Jerry Blair said Wednesday that the Columbia County Sheriff's Office is investigating whether the parents of 16-year-old William Carl Myers will face child neglect charges.

Sheriff's Capt. Neal Nydam said the investigation began after Myers, weighing just 90 pounds, was admitted to a Gainesville hospital Oct. 22.

Myers was suffering from a heart problem and had apparently been ill for about three months, Nydam said.

Myers was listed in stable condition late Wednesday at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, but authorities said it was not yet clear whether he would survive.

Myers' parents, Charles and Marilee Myers, were unavailable for comment.

Nydam said investigators have interviewed the Myerses, but the couple had already obtained legal counsel and little was learned during the interview.

The Myerses are part of End Time Ministries, a religious group whose members have moved to Lake City from throughout the United States in recent years.

Members follow the teachings of leader Charles Meade, including a belief that illness should be treated by prayer, not modern medicine.

The Myers investigation is not the first time local authorities have looked at End Time beliefs.

In March 1989, newborn Michael David Boehmer, the son of End Time members, died after a three-day nosebleed. Medical experts said the child's death could have been easily prevented with vitamin K shots.

But following a coroner's inquest, Columbia County Court Judge Julian Collins cleared Kelly and Gail Boehmer of criminal wrongdoing.

At that inquest, the child's father, Kelly, said he would have sought medical care if he had realized the severity of the illness. And, in fact, the Boehmers had summoned an ambulance when they realized the child was in poor condition.

In the end, the Boehmer investigation was closed without addressing the difficult conflict between the parents' religious rights and the child's right to medical care.

But authorities were saying the Myers case may have to face that question.

"We'll just look at what happened and pass the information along to the state attorney," Nydam said.

Authorities Wednesday were reviewing a Sarasota case that also questioned whether parents' religious beliefs could justify denying medical treatment to a child.

In April 1989, a jury convicted a Sarasota couple of third-degree murder and child abuse in the death of their 7-year-old daughter. In that case, defense lawyers said William and Christine Hermanson were practicing their Christian Science religion when they decided to have their daughter's diabetes treated solely by prayer.

Blair, the Columbia County state attorney, said he would await the results of the investigation and monitor Myers' condition before determining whether charges will be filed.