Washington bill: Christian Science "healing" is no substitute for medical care

Washington bill: Christian Science "healing" is no substitute for medical care

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: parents have no constitutional right to withhold medical care from their child.  Not a First Amendment right to freedom of religion.  Not a due process right.  (Note: This includes immunizations.)  

Unfortunately, the majority of states have gratuitously created statutory rights that enable parents to substitute faith healing for medical care. You can find all of these laws, plus more information on the website of CHILD, a terrific organization that aims to protect children from the misguided withholding of medical care by parents.

 

In civil proceedings, these state laws generally take the form of excusing parents from a finding of child neglect or abuse, and therefore intervention by child protection authorities, solely because they provide faith healers instead of doctors for their children. These laws are couched in a variety of terms, but Arkansas's statute is fairly typical:

Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to mean a child is neglected or abused for the sole reason he or she is being provided treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone in accordance with the tenets and practices of a recognized church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner thereof in lieu of medical or surgical treatment. . . .

It would be interesting to see a case brought by an unaccredited practitioner from an unrecognized church challenging this statute on First Amendment grounds on the basis that there is absolutely no difference in results between his practices and those of accredited practitioners from recognized churches.  

The majority of states also provide a faith-healing defense to criminal laws against child abuse and neglect, manslaughter or murder. These laws vary greatly in their scope as well. A West Virginia statute:

The provisions of this statute [which define the offense of murder of a child by refusal or failure to supply necessities] shall not apply to any parent, guardian or custodian who fails or refuses, or allows another person to fail or refuse, to supply a child under the care, custody or control of such parent, guardian or custodian with necessary medical care, when such medical care conflicts with the tenets and practices of a recognized religious denomination or order of which such parent, guardian or custodian is an adherent or member.

Christian Scientists, although small in number, have had outsized success in getting statutory exemptions for faith healing.  Some statutes mention Christian Science practitioners specifically.  That is the case in Washington, but if House Bill 1476 becomes law, that will change. Currently, Washington law protects children and other vulnerable people, such as the frail elderly, from abuse and neglect by persons who are charged with their care, like their parents, or who work for them, such as home health care providers. It is a criminal offense to withhold adequate food, shelter, clothing and healthcare from them.  

In a preamble to the current criminal mistreatment law, the legislature stated that

It is the intent of the legislature that a person who, in good faith, is furnished Christian Science treatment by a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner in lieu of medical care is not considered deprived of medically necessary health care or abandoned.

And a civil statute governing protection of children from abuse and neglect contains this provision:

A person who is being furnished Christian Science treatment by a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner will not be considered, for that reason alone, a neglected person for the purposes of this chapter.

Both of those statements would be stricken from state law by Washington House Bill 1476 and Senate Bill 5408. Parents and others in charge of vulnerable people could no longer hide behind their religious beliefs as a means of avoiding their responsibilities. 

 

 

 

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