13 Nov 2010

Two Wisconsin bills would repeal religious exemption in 'faith healing' cases, but only one protects children

The Journal-Sentinel - Milwaukee, Wisconsin November 28, 2009

It's about protecting children

Deference is required for religious beliefs, but when a child's life is at risk there must be clear limits.


Madeline Kara Neumann was 11 years old when she died in March 2008 of untreated diabetes. Her condition had gone untreated because her parents relied on prayer and spiritual healing for the medical care of their child. Last summer, Leilani and Dale Neumann were convicted of second-degree reckless homicide.

The tragedy of Kara's death serves as the background for two competing bills that seek to address the issue of spiritual healing in Wisconsin.

Both would repeal the exemption secured by Christian Scientists in 1987 that prohibits prosecutors from charging parents with child abuse or neglect in cases in which those parents opted for prayer over medicine. Both are well-intentioned, both aim to protect children and both seek to strike the right balance between religious liberty and making sure kids get the medical care they need.

But because the bill authored by state Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) simply removes the exemption (without adding other protections), it does the better job of protecting children, which should be the state's first priority.

Berceau's bill would ensure that parents know that if one of their children is seriously ill, they need to seek medical treatment. There would be no ambiguity on whether state law offers an escape clause for spiritual healing or any other reason.

The bill is not aimed at putting parents in jail for practicing their religious beliefs - no one should question whether Christian Scientists and other believers in spiritual treatment love their children any less than anyone else. Nor does it seek to persecute Christian Scientists or others, like the Neumanns, who are not Christian Scientists but who believe in the efficacy of spiritual healing. It's designed to make sure that parents seek medical help before it is too late or the disease has become too serious.

Parents will still pray for their children. Parents who are charged with neglect or reckless homicide will still be able to explain to a jury that they sincerely believed that prayer could heal their child. And juries could still take that explanation into account, just as they could take into account explanations that parents did not think the disease or injury was serious or that they acted out of ignorance, not malevolence.

It affords the same protection to everyone in such cases, and does not create a protected group. Adult believers in spiritual healing could still decide to forego treatment for themselves. But they couldn't make that decision for their children.

Compare that with the competing bill authored by Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee). That measure would replace the exemption with a set of protections giving believers in spiritual healing an affirmative defense in such cases. The bill establishes nine criteria to determine whether the use of spiritual treatment was reasonable, including the length of the illness, the likelihood that medical treatment would have eliminated the condition and the experience of the family in relying on medical treatment or religious treatment.

That opens the door to ambiguity for families, prosecutors, judges and juries, and weakens any intended protections for children.

Like other freedoms, religious liberties in this country are not absolute. You can't have more than one spouse at a time, for instance. The U.S. Supreme Court has said "The right to practice religion freely does not include the liberty to expose the community or child to communicable disease, or the latter to ill health or death."

Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution bars the state from interfering with one's religious beliefs. But it also bars the state from giving any preference "by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship." Taylor's bill would provide that kind of preference.

It's telling that at a public hearing on Taylor's bill earlier this month, the large number of supporters of the measure were virtually all either Christian Scientists or their representatives or believers in spiritual healing. Opposed were social workers, district attorneys, medical professionals.

Not one health care professional of another faith appeared to testify that spiritual healing deserves special protection. Not one member of another religious denomination testified that Taylor's bill was required to protect religious freedoms in Wisconsin.

Perhaps the Berceau bill could be tweaked to accommodate some of the concerns of advocates of spiritual treatment. Certainly, for example, caring praying parents deserve to be protected from overzealous busybodies who would call authorities over a case of the sniffles. But even as the bills stand now, Berceau's is by far the better of the two.

Among those who support Berceau's bill are the Wisconsin Association of State Prosecutors; the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers; the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics; Prevent Child Abuse Wisconsin; the Children's Service Society; Children's Hospital and Health Systems, and the Wisconsin Association of School Nurses.

There are no doubt a good number of people of faith in those groups - people who will undoubtedly pray for their children when they get sick, but who know that medical treatment needs to be sought when an illness becomes serious.

The Legislature should follow their lead and enact Berceau's bill.

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