Outcome of trials in faith healing cases may impact religious communities around the U.S.
An article in TIME magazine talks about the impending trial of Dale and Leilani Neumann on charges of second-degree reckless homicide. Their daughter, Kara ‘Madeline’ Neumann died in March, 2008 when the Neumanns chose prayer over seeking help from doctors. Kara died of diabetic ketoacidosis, a treatable though serious condition of type 1 diabetes in which acid builds up in the blood.
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The Neumanns’ highly anticipated trial has sparked new debate in a long-running battle over faith healing in the United States. Under current Wisconsin law, a parent cannot be convicted of child abuse or negligent homicide if they can prove they genuinely believed that calling God, instead of a doctor, was the best option available for their child. The law is part of the legacy of the 1996 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which included a landmark exemption for parents who do not seek medical care for their children for religious purposes. While all states give social service authorities the right to intervene in cases of child neglect, criminal codes in 29 other states also provide additional protection for parents who forgo mainstream medical treatment. (Read TIME’s cover story on God vs. Science.)
In light of Kara’s high-profile case, faith-healing communities around the country are worried about losing their right to treat their children according to their religious beliefs. “The way the law is worded right now is confusing and makes it seem like we have a shield to recklessly endanger children,” says Joe Farkas, legislative affairs representative for the Church of Christ, Scientist, in Wisconsin. The Church has teamed up with Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor to write new legislation that could repeal a provision in the state’s child abuse and neglect statute that exempts parents from prosecution in some faith-healing cases, while creating a new “affirmative defense” for parents who made a “reasonable attempt” to provide medical care for their child.
The Church of Christ, Scientist is better known as Christian Science — a movement that identifies itself as Christian in nature, but whose theology and practices place it outside the boundaries of the Christian faith.
In 1995 the Atlantic Monthly addressed those beliefs and practices in its article, “Suffering Children and the Christian Science Church“: “The unwillingness of many Christian Science parents to seek help from physicians for their critically ill children has led to many painful and unnecessary deaths and, increasingly, to legal actions that have become burdensome to the Church and its members.”
Nobody knows exactly how many children’s health problems are exacerbated by a parent’s religious beliefs because “the system can only kick in if people become aware that a sick child is not getting care,” says Dr. Sara Sinal who co-authored a July 2008 article on religion-based medical neglect in Southern Medical Journal. “It is suspected that many deaths go unreported and unrecognized, particularly in closed communities.” Former Christian Scientist Rita Swan, executive director of the nonprofit Children’s Health Care Is A Legal Duty, estimates that since the 1980s 300 children have died of “religion-based medical neglect” in the United States. Shawn F. Peters, author of the 2007 book When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law calls the situation an unfolding tragedy. “Americans treasure religious liberty and it’s one of our bedrock freedoms,” says Peters. “Most of us realize that there have to be some limits to such freedoms.”
• Can Religious Faith Justify Reckless Homicide? A Wisconsin Prosecution Raises Larger Issues, Sherry F. Colb, Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell Law School, FindLaw
• Faith healing treads on dangerous legal ground: “Lawmakers should not loosen restriction on charging parents who use only faith healing to aid children with life-threatening illnesses”, Ryan Dashek, The Daily Cardinal
• Research resources on Faith Healing