Tennessee Supreme Court Hears Case of Mother Who Tried (and Failed) to Heal Her Daughter’s Cancer with Prayer

In early 2002, a doctor told 15-year-old Jessica Crank she needed to go to an emergency room because of what was later diagnosed as Ewing’s Sarcoma, a cancerous bone tumor. Instead of doing that, her mother Jacqueline Crank turned to Jesus instead.

Jessica died later that year.

Tennessee law has a section with definitions for aggravated child abuse and neglect. It includes this exemption:

Nothing in this part shall be construed to mean a child is abused, neglected, or endangered, or abused, neglected or endangered in an aggravated manner, for the sole reason the child is being provided treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone, in accordance with the tenets or practices of a recognized church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner of the recognized church or religious denomination, in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.

Because a trial court judge said Jacqueline Crank didn’t qualify for this exemption (because a duly accredited practitioner didn’t provide the spiritual treatment), she was given a sentence of nearly one year of unsupervised probation. Considering that her daughter arguably died of a treatable medical condition because of her mother’s neglect, that’s not even a slap on the wrist. It’s blowing on the wrist from a distance.

But Crank wasn’t happy with that. She said she did get help from an accredited practitioner — Ariel Ben Sherman — who got his credentials from the Universal Life Church, the same website that, for a few bucks, lets you become an ordained minister so you can officiate a wedding.

Crank has been appealing her sentence for years now and, this week, oral arguments took place in front of Tennessee’s Supreme Court:

In briefs, Crank argues that Tennessee’s Spiritual Treatment Exemption Act is unconstitutional because it treats some faith healing as legitimate while allowing other faith healing to be criminalized.

The state Court of Criminal Appeals ruled against Crank in 2013, saying that even if the state’s faith healing law were unconstitutional, striking it down would not undo Crank’s conviction. It would simply erase the exceptions for faith healing, leaving the law intact that makes it illegal not to seek medical treatment for a child.

Crank argues in a brief to the state Supreme Court that simply deleting the faith healing exemption would have the effect of punishing her for an act of which she is innocent.

Even if the law is found to be unconstitutional, it wouldn’t overturn Crank’s conviction, a fact that led the justices to ask her lawyer why she was even pursuing a legal challenge:

“How does (striking down the exemption) help your client?” Justice Cornelia Clark asked.

Justice Holly Kirby repeated the question when [attorney Gregory P.] Isaacs appeared to sidestep it.

“If we strike this provision down, doesn’t your client still stand convicted?” Kirby asked. “What are you asking us to do?”

If the high court strikes down the exemption, faith healing would be denied to all parents in future cases, not those already decided.

Chief Justice Sharon Lee and Justice Gary Wade wondered whether Crank was even entitled to claim the exemption since she twice took Jessica to a local clinic in Loudon County after the teenager developed a large tumor on her shoulder. It was only after those clinic visits Crank refused to seek follow-up diagnosis and care.

Let’s state the obvious: There should be no exemption for parents who allow their children to die because they put their trust in God instead of medicine. I’m upset that she received such a lenient sentence to begin with, and I’ll be furious if even that sentence is found to be too light. The only reason she was let off so easy was because doctors admitted that Jessica would likely have died from her tumor even if she had gone to a hospital immediately. (Though her quality of life would arguably have been much better in the time she had left.)

We’ve seen this happen way too many times. Parents are welcome to pray all they want. But putting their kids’ lives in jeopardy by not taking them to the hospital is not an acceptable option. I hope the TN Supreme Court just gets rid of the “faith-healing” exemption altogether.

Activist M. Dolon Hickmon does a really nice job of putting this case in broader context at Camels with Hammers.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Scott for the link)

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