Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Conviction of Mother Who Attempted 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.

Jessica died later that year.

Tennessee law has a section with definitions for aggravated child abuse and neglect that includes a religious 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 (since a duly accredited practitioner didn’t provide the spiritual treatment), she was given a sentence of nearly one year of unsupervised probation. (Hardy a punishment given what happened to her daughter.)

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.

After appealing her sentence for years, Crank got a chance to have her case heard in the Tennessee Supreme Court late last year:

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.

So how did that play out?

On Friday, the Court ruled that the state’s Spiritual Treatment Exemption Act was indeed constitutional, leaving Crank’s conviction in place but still providing a loophole for some parents who kill their children through faith-based neglect:

The court ruled defense attorney Gregory P. Isaacs “failed to offer evidence that the spiritual healing provided was in accordance with the tenets or practices of her church, which is one of the express requirements to qualify for the exemption.”

The exemption, on the law books since 1994, bars the prosecution of parents for child abuse and neglect solely because they choose to rely on faith healing. But that exemption comes with lots of caveats. For instance, the faith healer must be an “accredited practitioner” of a “recognized church or religious denomination.” The parent’s choice of faith healing over medicine must be rooted “in the tenets or practices” of that church or denomination.

It’s a disappointing ruling even if Crank remains punished. This was a chance to get rid of the exemption and the justices punted. It opens the door to even more children dying because their parents put them in harm’s way. If Crank prayed to heal her own tumor and died, maybe I wouldn’t care as much. But when she uses that ineffective method on her daughter?! She deserves to be punished severely for the crime, even if her intentions were pure.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link. Large portions of this article were posted earlier)

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