Church, lawmaker seek to clarify faith healing statute

The Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Wisconsin/January 13, 2009

The Church of Christ, Scientist in Wisconsin and state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) are working on legislation that would clarify the legal standard under which parents can - and cannot - be prosecuted for using faith healing in the care of their children, the church and Taylor's staff said Tuesday.

The measure, prompted by the 2008 death of an 11-year-old Wausau-area girl whose parents eschewed medical treatment in favor of prayer, aims to strike a balance between protecting children and respecting their parents' religious freedoms, said Taylor's chief of staff, Eric Peterson.

But a Wisconsin author who has studied Christian Science lobbying efforts nationally over the last century said Tuesday that the provision is likely to make faith healing cases harder to prosecute if history is an indicator.

"The church has a long history of creating legal protections for spiritual healing practices," said Shawn F. Peters, a University of Wisconsin-Madison lecturer and author of the 2007 book "When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law."

"The result typically has been statutes that make it more difficult for parents to be held legally accountable for their decision not to seek conventional medical treatment for their children," he said.

Dale and Leilani Neumann are awaiting trial in Marathon County on charges of second-degree reckless homicide in the March 23 death of their daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann. Marathon County Circuit Judge Vincent Howard in December rejected defense arguments that the prosecution violated their constitutional rights to freedom of religion and due process.

The legislation being drafted would repeal a provision in the state's child abuse and neglect statute that exempts parents from prosecution in certain faith healing cases. Create an 'affirmative defense'

It also would create an "affirmative defense" for parents who provide a "standard of reasonable care" for their child.

"An affirmative defense says you can't be prosecuted if the court says you made a reasonable attempt to provide medical care," Peterson said. "It gives them an out if they provided medical care and the prosecution can't prove they're criminally negligent."

Just what constitutes "reasonable care" would be left to judges to determine, Peterson said. But the Neumanns could not have asserted the defense, had it been the law at the time of their daughter's death, because they offered no care at all, he said.

"If you have a child with diabetes and you make no effort to control her sugar, that's not a reasonable standard of care," he said.

Christian Science legislative affairs liaison Joe Farkas said the church has taken no position on the Neumanns' case but sought the changes to clarify the law.

"There's been ambiguity in the law and questions about whether it provides a shield for all kinds of reckless behavior," Farkas said.

The new law, he said, would "permit effective care and provide an objective standard that would be applicable to all parents."

"Right now, there's no objective standard for reasonable use of spiritual healing," he said.

Christian Science, developed by Church of Christ, Scientist founder Mary Baker Eddy in the late 19th century, is described on the church's Web site as a "practical system of spiritual, prayer-based Christian healing."

But followers are not counseled to reject health care, Farkas said. "It's up to parents to determine what they've found effective in their own lives... But we are aware of the value of spiritual healing."

He declined to estimate the number of Christian Scientists in Wisconsin but said it has 34 churches and smaller societies.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.