When religious beliefs and laws of the land conflict, trouble is eminent. When an extreme interpretation of responsibility to God's will opposes the government's guaranteed protection of the right to life, deadly outcomes, lamentably, can result. When religion is used as a cause for violence, the corruption of all things human, or irrational power and control, religious views endanger society.
Two of government's obligations -- enforcing child welfare laws and protecting the Constitutional right to freedom of religious expression and practice -- can clash when a parent chooses to rely on prayer and other spiritual healing practices instead of standard medical care to treat a child's illness.
To me, allowing a child to suffer through obvious pain and potentially deadly symptoms is child abuse. At this point of endangerment, parents must give in to science and not rely solely on God to heal, no matter their faith.
Religion Versus the State
In a conflict between the parents' First Amendment rights to practice their religious beliefs and the State's duty to protect the health of children, most people hold that while adults have the right to practice spiritual healing for themselves, they have no religious right to endanger their children’s health. But, some groups counter any such endangerment with statements such as this: "The refusal of medical care is because we have found through experience and demonstration of healing that spiritual means -- prayer and spiritual treatment -- work more effectively for us." ("Christian Scientists Say Prayer is Best Medicine," Lawrence Eagle Tribune, May 9 1988)
Robert Peel’s book Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age (Harper & Row, 1987) states a case for spiritually effective practices. It contains affidavits by Christian Scientists attesting to the healing of such disorders as "spinal meningitis, compound pelvic fracture, broken vertebra, breast cancer, cancer of the uterus, double club feet, third-degree burns, acute rheumatic fever, polio, eczema, epilepsy, appendicitis, rheumatoid arthritis, tuberculosis, blood poisoning, diptheria and glaucoma." (Stephen Gottschalk, Christian Century, June 1988) Each of the healings Peel cites, over half of which involve children, were medically corroborated either by diagnoses or follow-up medical examination or both.
The death of a child under any circumstances or method of care is tragic. According to Gottschalk, "It is difficult to determine the number of Christian Scientists relying upon spiritual means for the healing of children, but the handful of losses among their children does not seem dramatically high for a small but widespread denomination."
The Laws of the Land
According to Robert W. Tuttle of Pew Research ("Faith Healing On Trial," September 1 2009),"Today, a few states, including Arkansas and West Virginia, have laws that grant broad immunity for parents who are prosecuted for criminal neglect or manslaughter as a result of engaging in faith healing rather than standard medical care; in these states, even if a child dies as a result of a parent's decision to rely on prayer rather than medicine, parents are generally protected from prosecution."
Yet, most states have much narrower exemptions for faith healing. These narrower laws provide exemptions only in cases in which the child is not seriously harmed. And, even when exemptions protect parents from criminal prosecution, they still allow courts to impose other penalties, such as ordering that the child receive medical care or removing the child from the parents' custody. ("Faith Healing On Trial," September 1 2009
Tuttle continues to say that parents still have prevailed in some of these cases because courts generally interpret legal uncertainty in favor of the criminal defendant. When an exemption clearly does not apply in a case involving faith healing, parents have rarely been able to defend against criminal charges.
Sometimes these "religious" parents invoke the protection of religious liberty found in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but this type of argument usually fails because courts have interpreted the Constitution to provide very little protection for parents in this circumstance.
Still, a jury may provide legal protection for parents, since jurors have often expressed great sympathy for parents who have lost a child, sometimes regarding the parents' lot as tragic rather than criminally culpable.
The Case of Madeline Neumann
Fox News (October 6, 2009) reports a recent case. Dale and Leilani Neumann of Weston, Wisconsin, have been convicted of reckless homicide and will be sentenced in the death of their 11-year-old daughter, Madeline Neumann. Separate juries convicted each of second-degree reckless homicide in Madeline's Easter 2008 death. Madeline died on their living room floor from undiagnosed diabetes as they prayed rather than getting her medical treatment. The parents could spend up to 25 years in prison for the crime.
The juries ruled the parents had a legal duty to rush the girl to a doctor after she could no longer walk, talk, eat or drink. They did not take Madeline to a doctor; instead, Dale and Leilani Neumann prayed over the telephone with the founder of a religious Web site named AmericaLastDays.com. (Bill Glauber, Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, March 28 2008) David Eells, whose ministry operates the Web site said the Neumanns "do not deserve this persecution" and wrote that authorities "don't investigate the people who put their trust in doctors whose family members die by the hundreds of thousands from medical mistakes every year."
A family friend finally called 911 after the girl stopped breathing.There is no indication authorities knew of the girl's dire medical condition before her death.
Madeline died of diabetic ketoacidosis, a treatable though serious condition of type 1 diabetes in which acid builds up in the blood. According to Associated Press reports, she had probably been ill for about a month, suffering symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness. Madeline last saw a doctor when she was 3 to get some shots.
The parents, who have three other teen-age children, say they believe all healing comes from God. The girl's mother, Leilani Neumann, said the family believes in the Bible, but she said the family does not belong to an organized religion or faith. Authorities said that the Neumanns' children - ages 13, 14 and 17 - had been interviewed by Social Services and law enforcement and checked by a physician. Mrs. Neumann said she deeply loves all her children and has nurtured them spiritually, emotionally and physically.
Evidently, the middle-class parents run a popular coffee shop and are well known in the community.
Their attorneys have said the convictions will be appealed. According to the report by Fox News, Madeline’s parents attributed her death to the fact that they didn’t have enough faith.
Was it Madeline’s fault her pancreas stopped functioning? Was it God's will that she suffer? What kind of a God would will this? How can rational people in the name of God pass such judgment onto their children? To suffer such a painful, horrible death for no reason is unfathomable. I, personally, feel such religious mind control is criminal and punishable by the stiffest sentences. To encourage or practice neglect of a child has no place in my frame of reference for religious behavior. May God help Mr. and Mrs. Neumann cope with the rest of their worldly days. They gave their daughter no such opportunity to experience life.
Dale and Leilani Neumann