Imagine this scenario: A father and mother take their child to a park and the child falls into a lake. The parents can swim, but their child cannot. Despite this, they do nothing and watch the child drown.
What should happen to the parents? Immediate arrest? Removal of all their other children? Jail time for manslaughter? Some combination of those options?
How about letting them take advantage of a law that allows them to let their children die and a plea deal that allows them to avoid prison?
But this is what can happen if the parents happen to be faith-healers.
Zachery Swezey was a 17 year-old high school junior when he got appendicitis. Unpleasant, but millions of people go through it without incident. Unfortunately for Zachery, his parents believed in the power of prayer over the wisdom of medical experts. So, instead of going to the hospital, his parents stood over him, doubtlessly watching him writhe in unspeakable agony, while they prayed for him to get better. Meanwhile, actual help was a phone call away, but that was irrelevant to them. Zachery died while his parents watched. His death was totally preventable and lacked even the mercy of painkillers.
His parents, Greg and JaLea Swezey, were already acquitted of second degree murder and the jury was deadlocked on the second degree manslaughter charge. JaLea has pled guilty to third-degree criminal mistreatment and Greg has now agreed to plead guilty to the same crime on the condition that he not commit a felony in the next two years. As part of the deal, the parents also have to call Child Protective Services if any of their other children get sick in the future.
Still, the terms “Scot” and “free” come to mind.
Washington state has a law RCW 9A.42.005, that renders criminal neglect A-OK for Christian Scientists:
The legislature finds that there is a significant need to protect children and dependent persons, including frail elder and vulnerable adults, from abuse and neglect by their parents, by persons entrusted with their physical custody, or by persons employed to provide them with the basic necessities of life. The legislature further finds that such abuse and neglect often takes the forms of either withholding from them the basic necessities of life, including food, water, shelter, clothing, and health care, or abandoning them, or both. Therefore, it is the intent of the legislature that criminal penalties be imposed on those guilty of such abuse or neglect. 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. Prosecutions under this chapter shall be consistent with the rules of evidence, including hearsay, under law.
Note how the language distinguishes between medical care and “Christian Science treatment.” It’s acknowledged that Christian Science does not offer actual medical treatment, but they get to neglect children because… well just because. Even other Christians aren’t allowed this Get Out of Jail Free card. If a Catholic faith healer, or a Baptist one, is called instead of a doctor, the parents can be prosecuted. Being a Christian Science practitioner has other perks as well, like not being on the list of people mandated to report suspected abuse or neglect — unlike real doctors.
The Swezeys are not Christian Scientists, but they said that the spirit of this exemption still applied to them, so the case should be dismissed.
The judge in this case declined to dismiss the case based on the law and prosecuted the Swezeys anyway. Legally it seems their mistake was praying over their dying son themselves, instead of calling in a “professional.” Their lawyer says the law is “begging” to be changed. He means that it should be made clear that the regular faithful should be legally allowed to let their children die in agony using their faith as a shield, not just so-called “practitioners.” I agree the law should be changed, but in the other direction.
This monstrous carve-out must be wiped out. Religious exemptions are bad. Religious exemptions that cost children their lives are an outrage to human decency.
***Update***: An earlier version of this posting said the parents were Christian Scientists. In fact, they are members of the Church of the First Born. Both groups believe in the power of prayer to overcome illnesses instead of visiting medical professionals.