Does Religious Freedom Extend to Child Endangerment? It’s Not as Simple as It Seems

Given all the high profile battles over “religious freedom” and LGBTQ rights you would be forgiven for overlooking the less heralded tension between First Amendment freedoms and protecting children from harm. That’s the dilemma posed by “No Greater Law,” a documentary that recently aired on the A&E network pitting Kieran Donahue, sheriff of Canyon County, Idaho, against Dan Sevy, leader of the Followers of Christ Church in a conflict that centers on child endangerment and religious rights.

The larger issue, however, concerns those states that allow groups to ignore or reject traditional medical practices on the grounds of religious freedom. In a nutshell, religious exemption statutes allow faith-based institutions to avoid civil and criminal liability in cases of child abuse or neglect. Only six states, including Idaho, now offer “a faith-based shield for felony crimes such as manslaughter,” while states like Oregon and Tennessee have abandoned similar statutes in recent years.

The watchdog organization, Child-Friendly Faith Project, aims to protect children from what it calls “religious child maltreatment.” This includes sexual and other forms of abuse as well as medical neglect. The recent report on widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania indicates that this issue will not go away any time soon.

Of course not all instances of child abuse are as clear-cut as sexual abuse, medical maltreatment, and forced labor. What about corporal punishment, for instance? Is spanking with a hand a form of cruelty against which children must be protected? What about with an implement, such as a rod, cane, or paddle?

The Twelve Tribes, a millennialist Christian group, has been in the spotlight for decades because it explicitly espouses a theological doctrine of corporal punishment. Many Christians in fact embrace the belief that, as Proverbs 13:24 has it, “sparing the rod spoils the child.” For example, Dr. James Dobson, founder of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, defends spanking, especially for strong-willed children. Even non-Christians and secularists endorse spanking.

What makes the Twelve Tribes different is that, as a new religious movement in which members live communally and share child-rearing responsibilities, they’re unfamiliar to most of us. As such, the movement has faced repeated attempts by government agencies in the United States and abroad to take children from their custody.

In 1984, Vermont state troopers and child welfare officials removed 112 children from the group’s Island Pond community. Within a few hours of the raid, however, Judge Frank Mahady declared that the state had over-reached its authority and acted illegally. By nine o’clock that evening, the children were returned to their families.

The Twelve Tribes faced subsequent raids in Nova Scotia, California, France, and Germany. And in 2013, Bavarian authorities removed 40 children from Twelve Tribes communities and placed them in foster care. The European Court of Human Rights upheld the action in 2018.

Child endangerment is a real problem. Governmental claims of child endangerment, however, are frequently inflated to justify state intervention in the case of new religions. In their book, Storming Zion, Stuart A. Wright and Susan Palmer document military-style government forays against minority religious groups, identifying a total of 116 state raids that occurred over the last 5-6 decades in 17 different countries. While France headed the list with 57 raids, the United States came in second with 14.

Wright and Palmer argue that the impetus for these raids has come in large part from an anticult movement (or ACM)—individuals and organizations concerned about the harm that new religions may inflict upon unsuspecting individuals. The ACM, along with evangelicals and an eager media, were a driving force behind the “Satanic panic” of the 1970s and 80s.

Let me repeat: child endangerment is real and child protection is necessary. The case of the Followers of Christ Church is an example. A task force established by Idaho governor Butch Otter found that the child mortality rate for the Followers between 2002 and 2011 was 10 times that of Idaho as a whole.

But let me also repeat: government claims of child endangerment may be inflated. Or, they may lead to even greater endangerment, such as the 1993 federal assault on the Branch Davidians. In that event, 22 children were killed as they huddled with their parents in an enclosed room to escape the CS gas injected into the building by U.S. government agents.

There must be some middle ground—not between right and wrong, but between different understandings of what constitutes abuse. Should spanking children be outlawed? What about circumcision of male infants? What about homeschooling children in religious ideologies that preach hatred?

But why stop with practices justified by certain religious beliefs? We could go further and examine whether youngsters should engage in tackle football or play on jungle gyms or use social media.

The debate over religious freedom and child protection masks a deeper cultural divide in the United States—the one between individual liberty and group solidarity. We live in a country in which 44 percent of the population believe that government aid to the poor does more harm than good, and a bare majority of 51 percent think that smaller government is better than bigger government. At the same time, recent polls indicate 70 percent of Americans support “Medicare for all,” and find that the current federal tax structure favors corporations and the wealthy. It’s not entirely clear, then, if we are rugged individualists or committed socialists.

What does seem clear is that a number of First Amendment religious freedom cases aren’t really about religion, but rather about the nature of the society in which we live. And they reveal the fissures that run deeply throughout.