Prayer vs. Medicine in the Courts

In recent months, prosecutors in both Oregon and Wisconsin have been confronted with a complex problem: Should parents who choose to treat their children’s illnesses with prayer rather than medicine be charged with abuse, neglect, or even manslaughter when their children die? As these cases begin to play out in the courts, it has become apparent that their task in answering that question is going to be anything but straightforward, thanks in part to the ambiguity of laws that might be applied to spiritual healing practices.

The Oregon case involves members of the Followers of Christ Church, whose faith healing practices generated an intense statewide outcry in the late 1990s. Church members Carl and Raylene Worthington currently face manslaughter and criminal mistreatment charges stemming from the death of their fifteen-month-old daughter, Ava. The toddler died on March 2 from bacterial pneumonia and a blood infection; ailments that her parents, citing the tenets of their religious faith, had chosen to treat with prayer rather medicine.

The Worthingtons appear ready to mount a vigorous defense. Their attorneys have already launched a Web site dedicated both to outlining the contours of their defense strategy and raising money to fund it. But, legally, this promises to be an uphill climb, thanks to changes in Oregon law that have eliminated apparent exemptions from criminal charges for parents who engaged in faith healing practices. They most likely will fall back on the claim that their religious practices are shielded from regulation by the First Amendment and analogous provisions in Oregon’s Constitution.

The Wisconsin case is every bit as tragic, but it might proceed slightly differently in the legal arena. On Easter Sunday, an 11-year-old girl named Kara Neumann died from diabetic ketoacidosis. Treatments of insulin almost certainly would have controlled the ailment, but Kara’s parents (whose beliefs about physical healing were shaped in part by a Florida-based online ministry) chose to treat her with prayer in lieu of medical science. Dale and Leilani Neumann later told police that their daughter had not been examined by a physician in more than seven years.

In late April, authorities charged the couple with second-degree reckless homicide, a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison. But several observers have cautioned that the prosecution of the Neumanns is bound to be complicated, if not simply derailed, by the apparent exemption for faith healing practices that remains in place in the state’s child abuse and neglect laws. The couple is likely to claim that this conflict in the laws (spiritual healing practices appear to be protected under one part of the criminal code but not under another) violates their right to due process of law.

Wisconsin’s “treatment through prayer” provision is not unique: More than thirty other states offer similar kinds of apparent legal protections for devout parents who reject medicine and turn to prayer when their children are ailing. A number of groups have lobbied for the repeal of such religious exemptions, chief among them the advocacy organization Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD). Its head, Rita Swan, has argued that these stipulations, while safeguarding the religious liberty of parents, endanger the health of children and violate several different interrelated Constitutional standards.

Groups ranging from the United Methodist Church to the National District Attorneys Association also have called for the repeal of religious exemptions to child-abuse and neglect laws. Several prominent medical organizations (among them the American Medical Association and the Bioethics Committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics) have echoed those calls. In 1988, the latter body issued a statement declaring that “all child abuse, neglect, and medical neglect statutes should be applied without potential or actual exemption for [the] religious beliefs” of parents. Deeply committed to “the basic moral principles of justice and of protection of children as vulnerable citizens,” the members of the bioethics committee called upon state legislatures to remove religious exemption clauses and thereby ensure “equal treatment for all abusive parents.”

A decade after that call for reform, however, a majority of states, including Wisconsin, have failed to act. Unfortunately, it seems that legislators might only lurch into action and address the law’s shortcomings if the prosecution of the Neumanns misfires.

Sightings is a publication of The University of Chicago’s Martin Marty Center.