1 Nov 2010

Little-known religions complicate faith-healing cases

Wausau Daily Herald July 6, 2009

Laws regarding child medical care often favor well-known denominations

By Rose French | The Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Most states have child abuse laws allowing some religious exemptions for parents who shun medicine for their sick children, but a few recent cases -- including the Madeline Kara Neumann case in Weston -- highlight thorny legal issues for parents practicing less-recognized faiths.

Existing laws gradually have accounted for more well-known and established faiths, such as Pentecostalism, Christian Science and Jehovah's Witnesses.

But recent cases in the news have judges and child care advocates dealing with parents who claim adherence to lesser-known faiths, such as a Minnesota family following an Internet-based group's American Indian beliefs, and an independent Oregon church that has been investigated in the past for the deaths of members' sick children.

Legal and religious scholars say it's becoming more difficult for courts to decide when to honor the religious beliefs of parents and when to order conventional medical treatment for extremely sick children.

The manslaughter trial of an Oregon couple who claim they were following their religious beliefs in the 2008 pneumonia death of their 1-year-old daughter began last week. A state medical examiner has said the infant could have been treated with antibiotics.

Believers in faith healing point to a Biblical verse in the Epistle of James that describes how church elders should be called in to pray over the sick. There's no mention of doctors, and literalists interpret it to mean medical treatment should be eschewed over prayer.

Jim Dwyer, a William and Mary Law School professor who has written articles about and participated in litigation on the topic, said it's often complicated for courts to discern cases with unaffiliated religions because judges and juries aren't as familiar with them and are skeptical of their legitimacy.

"The Supreme Court has adopted a very broad definition of religion," Dwyer said. "But ... you have to show sincere religious beliefs. Some judges might be skeptical of sincerity if it's something they've never heard of, if the person says, 'I don't belong to a certain church. I just have some beliefs that I saw on the Internet,' or 'In our own home, we've developed this set of beliefs.'"

At least two recent high-profile cases, one in Weston, involve parents whose beliefs were drawn from Internet-based religious groups.

In May, a jury convicted Leilani Neumann of second-degree reckless homicide for failing to take her 11-year-old daughter Madeline Kara Neumann to a doctor. Kara died of untreated diabetes in March 2008.

Prosecutors argued Leilani Neumann killed the girl by ignoring obvious symptoms -- she couldn't walk or talk and was believed to be in a coma -- until it was too late. The mother testified she didn't realize her daughter was so ill and did all she could to help, in line with the family's belief in faith healing.

Neumann and her husband, Dale, who faces trial this month on similar charges, sought the spiritual assistance of the online evangelical Christian ministry Unleavened Bread Ministries.

In the wake of the case, Rita Swan, director of the Sioux City, Iowa-based advocacy group Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, which lobbies states to repeal such laws, said legislators there are considering a bill that would repeal the state's religious exemption to its child abuse and neglect law.

"In the U.S. under the First Amendment, we're not supposed to be establishing religion or carving out any preferences for prestigious religions," Swan said. "The courts should not be giving any kind of deference to established denominations and making any distinctions."

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