Secular victory: Tennessee will now prosecute faith healing parents who damage or kill their children by choosing prayer over modern medicine.
In a victory for children Tennessee has repealed a law granting legal protection to parents who deny children medical care in favor of prayer.
Earlier this week the Tennessee House gave final legislative approval to a bill repealing the “spiritual treatment” exemption to Tennessee’s child abuse and neglect statute. The controversial 1994 law provided a shield from prosecution for child abuse or neglect if
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.
The bill was backed by a Kentucky-based group, Children’s Healthcare Is Legal Duty (CHILD), that works for repeal of similar spiritual treatment exemptions across the country. In a statement thanking lawmakers for repealing the exemption in Tennessee, CHILD’s President Rita Swan said:
CHILD believes all parents, regardless of their religious belief, should have a legal duty to obtain medical care for their child when necessary to prevent serious harm,” Swan said. “Courts have never ruled that parents have a constitutional right to abuse or neglect children in the name of religion, and Tennessee should not give them a statutory right to do so.
Also backing the new legislation was the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The group sent out an action alert out to its members and wrote to major Tennessee newspapers about the bill. FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote:
The victims here are children, too young to comprehend or consent to a course of action that may drastically increase their chances of death or permanent disfigurement. Religious freedom ends when a person’s actions threaten the health or safety of others. We do not let religious parents beat their children, so why do we let them withhold life-saving treatment?
Commenting on the repeal of the law, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said:
Such religious exceptions can—and have—caused great harm to children around the country. We’re delighted that reason and common sense have prevailed in at least one state.
Gaylor is correct. Faith healing parents have caused great harm to children around the country. For example, in Idaho, Mariah Walton was permanently disabled after she was denied medical care as a child because her faith healing parents chose prayer over modern medicine.
Now an adult, Walton wants her negligent faith healing parents prosecuted. However, currently in Idaho there is a religious shield law that protects parents who claim to be acting out of religious faith, so when a child like Walton is injured or dies due to lack of medical care, faith healing parents are not held accountable.
A bill that would have protected children from faith healing parents in Idaho was killed by Republican lawmakers in the state last month.
Idaho is one of six states that currently provides protection to faith healing parents who damage or kill their children by choosing prayer over modern medicine (the others being Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio and West Virginia).
The good news is that Tennessee will no longer be a state protecting faith healing parents.
The Tennessee bill now waits approval from Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, who is expected to sign it into law.
Bottom line: Children should not suffer for their parents ignorance and religious superstition. The justice system must protect children from faith healing parents, and punish negligent parents who choose to substitute prayer for modern medicine.