Washington is one of the states where child abuse and neglect is allowed by law if you’re doing it for religious reasons.
So when practitioners of Christian Science, for example, refuse to take their babies to a doctor or give them medicine for preventable problems — even if the babies die as a result — the parents are let off the hook. They’re exempt from punishment because they were simply following the tenets of their faith.
As it stands, state law is very explicit about this exemption:
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.
Last month, a handful of State House members — from both parties — sponsored a bill, HB 1290, that would remove the line from the law exempting Christian Scientists. That’s all it did. It would punish parents who abused or neglected their children regardless of reason.
That bill didn’t make it out of committee.
The reason it existed at all is because of the pressure from Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD), a group working to remove the faith-based exemptions to homicide in the several states that still allow it.
President Rita Swan explained all the obstacles to this bill in an email sent to supporters yesterday:
House Democratic leadership… told us we’d have to have an amendment. We rejected the Christian Science church’s proposed amendments but then drafted one we felt would still protect children adequately. Then, however, we were told that an amended bill could not advance because the title of the bill no longer described everything the bill did.
I suggested we change the title, which seemed like a simple way to solve this dilemma, but I was told it was against House procedure to change the title of a bill. We then asked a legislator to introduce a new bill, but he did not respond before the deadline for doing that.
We did agree to meet with bill opponents during the interim and develop “mutually acceptable language.” So maybe the bill will get through the legislature next year. As usual in an election year, however, it will be a short session and heavily focused on the budget.
That’s a long way of saying there’s no political will to get this common sense piece of legislation passed.
But maybe it’s not too late to get something done in Idaho, another state that allows faith-based exemptions to homicide. Legislators are talking about changing the law in a state where far too many kids have died because of their parents’ beliefs.
To that end, CHILD paid for this ad to appear in the Idaho Statesman today:
To the Honorable Senators and Representatives:
I was raised in Idaho in a faith-healing sect that shuns modern medicine. instead, when one of their members are sick or injured, church followers say prayers and perform religious rituals such as anointing with olive oil.
Adults are free to make such decisions for themselves, of course, but what about when a child is seriously ill? Do parents also have license to deprive him or her of potentially lifesaving medical care? According to Idaho law, some of them do. Because they can say they are simply adhering to their religious beliefs. The belief that only God has the authority to extend a child’s life and for a man to try to do so is a sin. Astonishingly, Idaho law considers that reason enough to allow them to endanger children in this way.
Even if a child dies as a result.
My nephew Steven is only one of the many victims. He was born with spina bifida and Arnold Chiari syndrome. Both are very painful, hereditary and debilitating diseases. He received no medical care of any kind. Not even as much as an aspirin for pain or a wheelchair for mobility. He was paralyzed from the waist down and suffered from intense headaches every day of his short life. I had to watch him suffer without being able to help. Steven died from pneumonia a month before he would have been three years old. I called Child Protective Services when Steven was dying. I was told they couldn’t intervene because the parents weren’t breaking any laws. It was their right to deprive Steven of all medical care.
Even if a child dies as a result.
But what about Steven’s rights? Didn’t he have a right to be given the best life he might’ve had given his condition? Didn’t he at least have a right to be made as comfortable as possible when he was dying?
The religious exemptions in current Idaho law are unconstitutional and discriminatory. They deprive children of their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the laws, and they discriminate against every Idaho parent who is not a member of a faith-healing sect. The laws deny a child’s right to live.
This is discriminatory on its face.
Most parents could be prosecuted for depriving a child of necessary medical care. But Idaho prosecutors file no charges when faith-healers let their children suffer, become disabled, or die because Idaho law lets them do what would otherwise be criminal injury or manslaughter. It is essentially a free pass or get out of jail free card for faith-healing parents.
I am not saying that people in faith-healing sects are bad people.
I have family who are still practicing members, and I care deeply about them. I am saying, however, that their indoctrination is so total that it makes it difficult, or perhaps even impossible, for them to make the best choices for their children’s basic medical needs. I was in my twenties when I needed an emergency surgery. Even though I had been away from the church for four years, I was very scared. I was always taught that medicine was a sin and a product of Satan, and that doctors were evil. I told my husband that he would be responsible for my death and for me going to Hell because he took me to a hospital. But what he actually did, of course, was save my life.
There have been two more child “faith-deaths” within the last two months…
the press has reported. And a county coroner has publicly said there may be as many as “one or two a month.” But they get swept under the rug of a legal tangle that makes even investigating them extremely difficult.
Many of you know who I am. For the last four years I have been asking the Idaho legislature to remove the language in Idaho’s child protection laws that allows one special category of parents (faith-healing practitioners) to let their seriously ill or injured children suffer and die. Repeal of the religious exemptions is urgent and vital. You know the language I speak of:
The practice of a parent or guardian who chooses for his/her child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to have violated the duty of care to such child.”
Remove it — that’s all you have to do. No more free passes. This is not a freedom of religion issue; this is a right to live issue.
Thank you for your attention,
Former Member, Followers of Christ
You would think sensible Democrats and self-proclaimed “pro-life” Republicans could get something done on this matter. But for some reason, people are clinging to this absurd idea that religion gives people a right to kill their children without consequences.
(Thanks to Charles for the link)