Dying in the church-state battlefield

FaithHealingTalk about an amazingly complex and poignant church-state separation case.

Not the cross-on-a-cliff story. As far as I can tell from the reports, the justices are going to either say that the cross is now on non-government land (So there!) or uphold the old standard that it is wrong for one overt religious symbol to stand alone in an official, government-recognized location. So hang on for the coverage of that ruling, when it arrives.

No, I’m talking about another church-state story in the same issue of the New York Times, the one under the headline that said: “Wisconsin Couple Sentenced in Death of Their Sick Child.”

The problem is that it isn’t really clear that the Times knows that this is a church-state case, as opposed to being a “faith healing” case and that’s that. Clearly some of the sources know the legal terrain. This may be a case in which the reporter simply was not given enough time and room to get the job done.

Here’s the top of this story:

A Wisconsin couple were sentenced to jail time … for failing to seek medical attention for their ill daughter, renewing a debate in some circles over whether states should allow parents to practice spiritual treatments.

The parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, were ordered to spend 30 days in jail each year for the next six years and were placed on 10 years’ probation. Mr. Neumann, 47, and Ms. Neumann, 41, who live in Weston, in central Wisconsin, had been convicted of second-degree reckless homicide in August. Their daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, 11, died from untreated diabetes on March 23, 2008, the authorities said. When the girl became ill and could no longer walk or talk, her parents prayed for her instead of taking her to a doctor, prosecutors said.

Her parents could have faced as much as 25 years in prison. While on probation, the Neumanns must take the two surviving children who live with them to the doctor if they are seriously injured or sick, said Judge Vincent K. Howard of Marathon County Circuit Court, and the children must undergo periodic health checks.

Defense lawyers for the Neumanns said they planned to appeal the conviction because state law is not clear on the issue of spiritual treatment.

I cannot tell you how many hours professors and students talked about cases of this kind when I was in graduate school in the mid-1970s at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University.

Once again, let me note that — in defense of religious liberty — government officials are supposed to avoid getting entangled (that’s the key word) in precisely these kinds of questions. But when can they get involved? It helps if reporters know the lines that have been drawn in the legal sands. The state is allowed to investigate whether the practice of religious beliefs are leading to (1) fraud, (2) profit and (3) a clear threat to the life and health of individuals. Note the word “clear.”

Obviously, courts give religious groups some leeway here, as can be seen in the history of cases involving Christian Science and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In particular, it is hard to say when beliefs threaten the “health” of children who are minors.

Take this over into a secular context for a second. Say you have children living in the home of a father who is a gun collector and he also struggles with alcoholism. Are the children consistently in danger? How about children with asthma living in a home in which both parents are heavy smokers? Pull the children out and put them in a safer home?

Obviously, it is hard for judges to say to parents, “We know that you think you worship the God of the universe and all that, but this healing thing isn’t real.” That, friends and neighbors, is doctrinal entanglement. But is it justified? Yes. Where do you draw the line? That’s the problem.

hand_projecting_prana_energy_pranic_healing_chakra_therapyYou can see these issues hovering in the background in this part of the Times report. Note the threat in the first paragraph:

Several state lawmakers, meanwhile, have said they plan to introduce legislation to settle the issue. One bill, for instance, would remove religious exemptions for charges of neglect and abuse, while another would broaden the religious exemption to apply to other types of cases.

Shawn Peters, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied the nexus of religion and the law, said the Neumanns’ sentencing was not unusual. … There had been at least 50 convictions in the United States since 1982 in cases where medical treatment was withheld from a child for religious reasons.

“The sentences tend to be halfway punishments where you have relatively mild penalties imposed on parents who are found to be legally guilty of having caused a child’s death,” Mr. Peters said. “It underscores how uneasy we are both politically and culturally when it comes to regulating religious conduct even when the consequences are disastrous.”

Like I said, it is hard to know where to draw the line. People who believe in faith healing, alone, are going to keep having children. Does the state step in at the very start, during that first visit to (cue: theme from “Jaws”) a state-sanctioned health-care provider? How about requiring the children to meet certain medical standards during school? Wait, what if they are home-schooled? Do courts step in the minute the child gets sick? How would the state detect this? What if a asthmatic child is living in the home of parents who believe in faith healing AND they are smokers?

Welcome to the church-state minefield. The Times story is a snapshot of a much larger picture. Maybe it needed one more paragraphs of legal facts. You think?

Top photo is from flickr.com. Use of this photo in no way implies that the photographer endorses the content of this post.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dave

    This is an interesting post on a knotty problem, but I’m not sure why it’s in GetReligion. Wherein did the reporter fail to reflect the religious content of the story?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I think the post states why I wrote it. There is a kind of church-state ghost here, one linked to religious liberty.

    But, as I said, I am not sure AT ALL that the reporter was to blame. Could simply have been a lack of space.

    That source at the end KNEW the issues. You could tell that.

  • http://www.dannyhaszard.com Danny Haszard

    Jehovah’s Witnesses blood transfusion confusion

    Jehovah’s Witnesses & blood transfusions is contradictory,they condemn blood but then go and use ‘fractions’,donated by thousands of Red Cross volunteers.They use 60% of the blood volume as broken down “fractions” …

  • Jerry

    now on non-government land (So there!)

    It’s not as simple as you stated because first the transfer to the VFW was to circumvent the law and apparently there are some provisions that would allow the transfer back to the government. And it should be noted that the Federal Government turned down a request for a Buddhist shrine at that location.

    Like I said, it is hard to know where to draw the line.

    I think people want to keep re-fighting a clear standard. From what I can see if a parent by inaction causes the death of a child for whatever reason, that is over the line.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    As you know, I back the multiple symbol position.

    BUT, there are questions about where to draw the line. Does the child HAVE TO BE DEAD before you draw a line?

    That’s the debate.

  • Dave Vander Laan

    The link to the NY times story about the cross doesn’t work. Here’s a link that does:

  • Dave

    Terry, I guess I’m jaded. The free-exercise issue shrieks to me from every paragraph even though it’s never specifically laid out. But you’re right, a person who never heard of the free-exercise clause could assume that religious exemptions to health rules are merely some kind of charity by the state and lack a strong constitutional rationale.

  • Jerry

    BUT, there are questions about where to draw the line. Does the child HAVE TO BE DEAD before you draw a line?

    That’s the debate.

    I was reacting to the story – the death of a child.

  • str

    I don’t see any state-church problem at all. The parents neglected to provide their daughter with treatment and she died. They are not tried for providing “spritual therapies” but for neglecting others. That the daughter died is a matter of fact.

    As for the other case, the government should have to resort to land swapping to stop the intolerant vandalists supported by the ACLU. Oh, a cross stands on (what used to be) government land? So what!!!

  • str

    PS. Both the add multiple symbols and the demolish the one symbol are totally and extremely wrongheaded. The latter is the one of the Taliban when the demolished the Buddha statues in Afghanistan while the former would have demanded that these statues needed to be neutralised by adding, say, a Christ statue or Islamic calligraphy.

    The cross was there before the government ever arrived at the place so any late-comers should shut up about it!

    And adding a Buddhist shrine (which would totally go against the demolition-nuts, as it – in contrast to the cross’ errection – would actually be building a religious site on government land) doesn’t create neutrality. Next, we will have to have 50 sites there to ensure “neutrality”.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Please discuss the media coverage, not the issue of the cross itself.

  • str


    I thought the topic was the girl that died, not the cross. My comments were thought merely as an aside. I point to Jerry’s comments as well.

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