QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ON RELIGIOUS EXEMPTIONS
FROM PARENTAL DUTIES OF CARE
1. Are these religious exemptions mandated by the First Amendment?
No. The courts have never ruled that freedom of religion gives anyone the right to cause or allow injury to a child. Courts have consistently ruled that freedom of belief is absolute, but freedom to act out religious beliefs can be limited by vital state interests. The issue here is not an adult’s freedom of religion, but whether an adult can impose his or her religion on a child to the child’s detriment.
2. Will repeal of these exemptions cause excessive state intrusion in families?
Repeal should not cause harassment of parents by the state. Repeal would simply establish a uniform standard. All parents would be required to provide necessary medical care. The state has no right to investigate parents because of community prejudice against their religion. The state must have reason to believe that a specific threat to the welfare of a child exists before it can investigate an allegation of child abuse.
3. Are court orders adequate to protect children associated with faith-healing sects?
No. Court orders have worked fairly well to protect children of Jehovah’s Witnesses because the Witnesses object only to blood transfusions. They take their children regularly to doctors, who know when a transfusion is needed and quickly get the courts to order the procedure.
Several sects, however, object to nearly all medical treatment and diagnosis. When their children are ill, parents and fellow church members are usually the only ones who know about it. The courts have no reliable way to learn the illnesses of these children in time to save their lives.
Children are helpless. They cannot assert rights for themselves. Someone must have a legal responsibility to care for them. Parents have custody of children and should therefore have a duty to provide needed medical care. The state cannot monitor children’s health continuously.
4. Should the state punish loving parents who are acting out sincere religious beliefs?
To establish a legal duty, the state has to spell out a penalty for failure to obey. That is the only way laws establish a duty, and that is true for everything from running a red light to murder.
Religious exemptions put the state in the position of announcing in advance that parents have the right to withhold lifesaving medical care on religious grounds. This is a death sentence for children. The state must have the option of prosecution available to create a parental duty to care for the child.
Love and good intentions are not all it takes to be a parent. Many parents who severely abuse their children love them and believe they are acting in the child’s best interest. Children are helpless. They cannot assert their own civil rights. We have to have laws that require parents to provide their children with the necessities of life as understood from the accumulated wisdom of mankind.
5. Can the state set a clear standard on when to seek medical care?
No one is required to seek medical treatment for trivial, self-limiting illnesses. No parent is required to continue with medical treatment that is only experimental or does not have a good probability of saving life or enhancing quality of life. Many child protection laws require parents to provide “adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.” There are variations in what is considered adequate in each of these areas; the state allows a range of behavior. But there is also a point at which a reasonable, prudent parent would recognize that a child might be seriously ill or injured. At that point the state should require the parents to seek medical attention.
6. Should medicine have “a monopoly” on treating children? Does repeal of religious exemptions outlaw spiritual healing?
Faith-healing churches cite the failures of medicine and ask if medicine should be the only legal health care. While medicine is not perfect, it is a state-licensed system accountable to its patients and the state. Its successes and failures are public information. The medical profession is obligated to select treatments which scientific data shows to be effective and to alter treatments in response to data.
Religious exemptions make prayer a legal substitute for the medical care needed by a sick child. But the state has no ability to scrutinize the results of faith healing or to set standards for faith healers. The state has no evidence that prayer heals juvenile-onset diabetes or bacterial meningitis, for example. The state, therefore, should not recognize prayer as a legal substitute for necessary medical care of children. Parents should not be allowed to deprive a sick child of all the vast resources of twentieth-century medicine. State-licensed, secular health care should be recognized in law as the standard of care with parents having freedom to try other remedies including prayer in addition.
7. Doesn’t faith healing have evidence that it works?
Faith healing has thousands of anecdotal accounts of healing. The body has a rich array of processes for healing itself. Also, the mind and spirit do impact upon disease and health. But religious healing does not have controlled studies or statistical data to indicate that it can heal diseases that ordinarily require medical intervention. It usually lacks appropriate documentation for its anecdotal accounts.
8. Can the law change behavior motivated by religious belief?
From our observation, laws can change behavior motivated by religious belief. We believe many parents would be relieved to obey state laws if the state made its standards clear. Having a clear legal duty relieves the parents of breaking moral laws of the church. But even if clear laws cannot always prevent a tragedy, the state has a moral obligation to set forth a standard in defense of a child’s right to live. We don’t throw out the laws against bank robbery just because they don’t prevent all bank robberies.
9. Only a small number of children are at risk in faith-healing sects. Is it worth the effort to repeal religious exemptions?
There are hundreds of documented cases of children who died without medical care in faith-healing sects in the U.S. There are no doubt more that have never come to light, but no matter what the number, the children in faith-healing sects have a right to live. Our form of government is supposed to stand up for the individual. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees to everyone born in the United States “equal protection of the laws.” Religious exemptions discriminate against a group of children, depriving them of protections the state extends to other children.