Expert: Change in prayer law would protect Christian Scientists, not kids
In an effort to separate itself from the tragic death of young Madeline Kara Neumann of Wisconsin whose parents chose to pray over her rather than seek medical help, the local Christian Science Church has been meeting with state legislators to revise a state law that currently exempts faith healing practices from prosecution for child neglect and abuse.
The church said its goal is to protect children. “We want to protect children and to show that our church does not want to hang onto a legislative accommodation that is perceived as helping people abuse their children,” said Joe Farkas, the legislative affairs representative for the church.
But one expert warned that any measure drafted by Christian Scientists would aim to protect only Christian Scientists, not children.
“If the Christian Science Church is allowed to write this legislation and dominate the discussion, the result is that there will be more Kara Neumann cases,” said Shawn Francis Peters, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Oshkosh and the author of “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law.”
The chief of staff for Sen. Lena Taylor, chair of the judiciary committee, confirmed Taylor’s office has been working with Farkas on a bill that would revise the current statute. A draft of the measure was sent to the legislative research bureau, Eric Peterson said, and should reach the floor this spring.
“We’re working on legislation that would clarify the statute to protect the civil right to prayer and healing and protect children,” Peterson said.
Peterson said that the bill would eliminate the existing exemption for faith healing and create a legal mechanism known as an “affirmative defense” that would require anyone attempting to use spiritual or faith healing as a legal defense to follow a “standard of medical care” that Peterson claimed had been established by the courts. The bill itself would provide no guidelines for what this standard of medical care would mean.
“This is a recipe for utter confusion,” Peters said of the proposal, claiming that no such standard of care has been clearly established in Wisconsin courts yet. He said he suspected the Christian Science Church is using the bill to head off any legal and political fallout as the Neumann case winds its way through the courts this year.
“This is what they do. They lobby and they lobby really hard,” he said. “The church tries to get ahead of the curve and shape the law before the courts can establish judicial precedent.”
The Christian Science Church, which practices spiritual healing, pushed successfully for faith healing exemptions decades ago to abuse and neglect laws across the country, including Wisconsin’s.
But Farkas now argues that he and other members never intended the laws to be used to defend the sort of inaction that allegedly led to the death of 11-year-old Madeline Kara Neumann in Weston last Easter. Neumann’s parents allegedly prayed for weeks rather than seeking medical care as their little girl became more and more ill and eventually died from treatable diabetes.
Dale and Leilani Neumann are currently awaiting trial in Marathon County for second-degree manslaughter. Leilani’s case is scheduled to come to trial in May, and her husband will be tried in August.
The Neumanns did not belong to an organized church or faith, but spoke of believing in the Bible and in healing that comes from God. They were known in town for running bible study groups from the coffee shop they owned. While their daughter was dying, they sought help from an online ministry. Even after their daughter died, according to news reports, they believed she would be resurrected.
An article from the August 13, 2008 issue of The Capital Times:
Healing or homicide? The use of prayer to treat sick children
Last Easter Sunday, an 11-year-old Wisconsin girl died of untreated diabetes after her parents chose to pray for her recovery rather than seek medical help. Madeline Kara Neumann’s parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, are scheduled to be arraigned in Marathon County next week on charges of second-degree reckless homicide.
The Wisconsin case is only the latest in a grim procession of hundreds of such cases stretching back to the late 1800s in England, when a sect called the Peculiar People ended up on trial for allowing generations of children to die as a result of their decision to spurn doctors and medicine.
Few realize just how common the use of faith healing still is in our state and elsewhere, and how many children’s lives are at stake. Except for the by-now predictable flurries of media attention every time another child dies due to what experts call religion-based medical neglect, there has been surprisingly scant attention paid to the accumulative toll of these deaths. That is one reason UW history instructor and author Shawn Francis Peters decided a couple of years ago to research the controversial topic.
“When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law” is the first book to look unflinchingly at the tragic cases of children who have died because their parents place absolute faith in the power of prayer rather than in the efficacy of modern medicine. The book, published this spring by Oxford University Press, came out just weeks before Kara — as she was called — died in Weston, propelling Peters into the national spotlight.
In his book, Peters uses trial transcripts, judicial opinions, news accounts, and police and medical reports to explore the views of all the players involved in these cases and the complex challenge of reconciling conflicting values. How does society balance the rights of parents to practice religious freedom and raise their children as they see fit with the rights of children to be protected from neglect, abuse and even death?
The answer: imperfectly. Wisconsin statutes for child neglect and abuse, like laws in most other states, often provide a shield for parents like the Neumanns because of an exemption for faith-healing practices. The result, Peters says, is that children like Kara keep dying. Here are excerpts from a recent conversation.