There is perhaps no more dire misuse of religious freedom as a justification in health care issues/debates than in cases of so-called “faith healing,” where genuine medical care is avoided or refused outright, and prayer or other practices based on the supernatural take their place, sometimes entirely.
Though informed and consenting adults should be free to exercise their First Amendment rights to refuse scientifically proven medical treatment in the name of their religious beliefs, they should not be able to deny medical care to their children, who have no choice in the matter, and are clearly not capable of making these enormous medical and theological decisions on their own. No child should suffer or die for the sake of their parents’ religious dogma – yet all too often they do.
Between 1975 to 1995, the most comprehensive study of the issue found at least 172 children died due to faith-based medical neglect. That number has only increased since.
Notable Recent Cases
- In 2013, Oregon 12-year-old Syble Rossiter died from untreated diabetes. Her family belongs to the Church of the Firstborn, whose prohibition against medical treatment has been linked to over 80 child deaths since 1976.
- For failing to say “Amen” during meals, members of a Baltimore sect starved 16-month old Ria Ramkissoon in 2007, choosing instead to pray over the boy as his health deteriorated, continuing even after his death.
- In 2008, Madeline Kara Neumann died of undiagnosed diabetes. Her parents were convicted of 2nd-degree reckless homicide, a conviction upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2013.
- In 2008, the parents of 15-month old Ava Worthington—members of the Followers of Christ—were criminally convicted after she died of untreated pneumonia.
- In 2011 the parents of newborn Alayna Wyland—also of the Followers of Christ—were charged with first-degree criminal mistreatment for refusing to provide medical care for their daughter, who suffered from a facial tumor that nearly blinded her.
A Philadelphia couple was charged with 3rd degree murder for
the deaths of two children—in 2009 and 2014—from untreated pneumonia. Their father was quoted:
“We believe in divine healing, the Jesus shed blood for our healing and that he died on the cross to break the devil’s power.”
Religious Exemptions From Laws Protecting Children
Following a now-repealed Nixon-era law—advocated for by the Christian Science Church—requiring that states create faith-healing exemptions in order to receive certain federal funding, a diverse swarm of laws were passed which, to varying degrees, excuse the withholding of health care from children in the name of the parents’ religious beliefs. Today most of these laws persist, and in many states the neglectful parents of suffering or dead children may escape with no charges at all. Some states even allow a religious defense for crimes against children such as manslaughter, neglect resulting in death, criminal mistreatment, and murder.
In the state of Washington, lawmakers are pushing to revoke a decades-old exemption that allowed Christian Scientists—and only Christian Scientists—to use religion as a defense for withholding medical care from children. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for the elimination of all such exemptions.
In other states, however—including Idaho, where Followers of Christ has been linked to the deaths of over 100 children—conservative legislators have fought to stop proposed laws which would attempt to protect sick children from faith-healing parents.
In defense of faith-healing exemptions, Idaho Rep. Christy Perry stated:
“This is about religious beliefs, the belief God is in charge of whether they live, and God is in charge of whether they die. This is about where they go for eternity.”
Faith Healing and The Affordable Care Act
Lobbying groups from various religious sects are still working to introduce and expand such protections, including at the federal level. With support from Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Il.) and William Keating (D-Ma.), Christian Scientists and others have been working to gain special treatment under the Affordable Care Act.
The Equitable Access to Care and Health (EACH) Act (H.R.1814) would allow special exemptions for religious believers who wish to refuse to purchase mandated medical coverage for themselves and their children, and instead rely on faith-based rituals. The EACH Act has already passed the House of Representatives—we must not allow it to be approved by the Senate.
This section will be updated as news develops on this topic.
- Faith-healing Oregon Parents Have Manslaughter Conviction Upheld – October 13, 2015
- Supreme Court Rejects Appeal of Gay Conversion Therapy Ban – May 7, 2015
- Law and Medicine: Pediatric Faith Healing – November 24, 2014
- Friendly Atheist: Tennessee Supreme Court Hears Case of Mother Who Tried (and Failed) to Heal Her Daughter’s Cancer with Prayer – September 9, 2014
- The Telegraph: Judge Rules Seriously Ill Boy Can Be Treated Against Mother’s Beliefs – August 18, 2014
- The Local: Guru and Mom Sentenced for Refusing Sick Son Medicine – August 6, 2014
- The Raw Story: Jury Will Hear About Oregon Couple’s Faith-Healing Beliefs in Trial Over Dead Child – May 30, 2014
- Web Site — What’s the Harm?
- Organization — Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty
- Information — Religion-Related Medical Neglect
- Report — Child Fatalities from Religion-Motivated Medical Neglect
- Article — Faith Healing and the Law
- Article — Faith-Healing a First Amendment Dilemma
- Article — Faith Healing: Religious Freedom vs. Child Protection