16 Jan 2009

Expert: Change in prayer law would protect Christian Scientists, not kids

The Capital Times - Wisconsin

January 14, 2009

by Shawn Doherty

In an effort to separate itself from the tragic death of young Madeline Kara Neumann of Wisconsin whose parents chose to pray over her rather than seek medical help, the local Christian Science Church has been meeting with state legislators to revise a state law that currently exempts faith healing practices from prosecution for child neglect and abuse.

The church said its goal is to protect children. "We want to protect children and to show that our church does not want to hang onto a legislative accommodation that is perceived as helping people abuse their children," said Joe Farkas, the legislative affairs representative for the church.

But one expert warned that any measure drafted by Christian Scientists would aim to protect only Christian Scientists, not children.

"If the Christian Science Church is allowed to write this legislation and dominate the discussion, the result is that there will be more Kara Neumann cases," said Shawn Francis Peters, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Oshkosh and the author of "When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law."

The chief of staff for Sen. Lena Taylor, chair of the judiciary committee, confirmed Taylor's office has been working with Farkas on a bill that would revise the current statute. A draft of the measure was sent to the legislative research bureau, Eric Peterson said, and should reach the floor this spring.

"We're working on legislation that would clarify the statute to protect the civil right to prayer and healing and protect children," Peterson said.

Peterson said that the bill would eliminate the existing exemption for faith healing and create a legal mechanism known as an "affirmative defense" that would require anyone attempting to use spiritual or faith healing as a legal defense to follow a "standard of medical care" that Peterson claimed had been established by the courts. The bill itself would provide no guidelines for what this standard of medical care would mean.

"This is a recipe for utter confusion," Peters said of the proposal, claiming that no such standard of care has been clearly established in Wisconsin courts yet. He said he suspected the Christian Science Church is using the bill to head off any legal and political fallout as the Neumann case winds its way through the courts this year.

"This is what they do. They lobby and they lobby really hard," he said. "The church tries to get ahead of the curve and shape the law before the courts can establish judicial precedent."

The Christian Science Church, which practices spiritual healing, pushed successfully for faith healing exemptions decades ago to abuse and neglect laws across the country, including Wisconsin's.

But Farkas now argues that he and other members never intended the laws to be used to defend the sort of inaction that allegedly led to the death of 11-year-old Madeline Kara Neumann in Weston last Easter. Neumann's parents allegedly prayed for weeks rather than seeking medical care as their little girl became more and more ill and eventually died from treatable diabetes.

Dale and Leilani Neumann are currently awaiting trial in Marathon County for second-degree manslaughter. Leilani's case is scheduled to come to trial in May, and her husband will be tried in August.

The Neumanns did not belong to an organized church or faith, but spoke of believing in the Bible and in healing that comes from God. They were known in town for running bible study groups from the coffee shop they owned. While their daughter was dying, they sought help from an online ministry. Even after their daughter died, according to news reports, they believed she would be resurrected.

Farkas said that the church was stung by news coverage of both Kara's death and the murky law her parents reportedly intend to use for their defense. He has been meeting for months with staff for Sen. Taylor and other legislators.

"We hope this will put parents on notice that their behavior will be judged," Farkas said. "The law as it currently stands presents a confusing picture as to what is -- and is not -- permissible in this state. It is time to fix that."

Farkas added that the national headquarters backs his efforts. In fact, two representatives were in town Tuesday and advised Farkas as he fielded calls from the media.

Farkas insisted the church has a genuine interest in protecting children. "Every child has the right to health and safety whether or not a child's parent's rely on conventional medicine or on prayer for healing," Farkas said.

But Peters said the revision wouldn't fix anything and only would make the law more confusing than it is now. "It's just going to be even harder to prosecute," he said.

He said he is "flabbergasted" that the discussion to date surrounding the drafting of the measure had not involved any other groups, and he blamed legislators for not inviting them and apathetic child advocates and public officials for ignoring the issue.

"There is a vacuum here," he said. "I haven't seen any child welfare or advocacy group stepping in there. I am shocked and disappointed that there hasn't been a more inclusive discussion. If the Christian Scientists dominate this discussion, the result will be legislation that serves the Christian Scientists, not children. And history will repeat itself. I'm not sure that's what the public wants."

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