Why do courts give believers a pass?
In the past 25 years, hundreds of children are believed to have died in the United States after faith-healing parents forbade medical attention to end their sickness or protect their lives.
When minors die from a lack of parental care, it is usually a matter of criminal neglect and is often tried as murder.
However, when parents say the neglect was an article of faith, courts routinely hand down lighter sentences. Faithful neglect has not been used as a criminal defense, but the claim is surprisingly effective in achieving more lenient sentencing, in which judges appear to render less unto Caesar and more unto God.
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This disparate treatment was evident last month in Wisconsin, a state with an exemption for faith-based neglect under its child abuse laws.
The Neumanns are affiliated with a faith-healing church called Unleavened Bread Ministries and continued to pray with other members while Madeline died. They could have received 25 years in prison. Instead, the court emphasized their religious rationale and gave them each six months in jail (to be served one month a year) and 10 years’ probation.
Then there are the parents of Alex Washburn. The 22-month-old died after hitting his head at home in Cross Lanes, W.Va. His parents, Elizabeth Dawn Thornton and Christopher Steven Washburn, said the boy fell a lot and hit his head on the corner of a table and his chin on a toilet.
They apologized for not seeking medical help and agreed to terminate their parental rights to their other children, handing over custody to the state. “I wish I did seek medical treatment for my son faster,” Washburn told the court. “That will definitely be with me for the rest of my life.” The court sentenced both parents to three to 15 years in prison.
So the Neumanns got one month in jail for six years and kept custody of their children, and the Washburns got up to 15 years in prison and agreed to give up their kids.
In a nation founded on the free exercise of religion, the legal system struggles with parents who act both criminally and faithfully in the deaths of their children. This paradox has perplexed courts for centuries.
Jonathan Turley is a professor of public interest law at George Washington University and a practicing criminal defense lawyer.
Among other things, his article also addresses the upcoming trial of Jeff and Marci Beagley — members of the controversial Followers of Christ Church, Oregon — in the death of their son Neil Jeffrey Beagley.
Turley participated in a Q and A with readers of the Washington Post, the transcript of which is online.