Pew: “Most states allow religious exemptions from child abuse and neglect laws.”

Pew: “Most states allow religious exemptions from child abuse and neglect laws.” August 22, 2016

So, we all agree that child abuse and neglect is bad and, like many bad things, we have laws in place in order to prevent.  However, for some things we rightly consider abuse, in many states there are laws which declare they’re suddenly not abuse if done for religious reasons, as Pew outlines:

All states prosecute parents whose children come to severe harm through neglect. But in 34 states (as well as the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico), there are exemptions in the civil child abuse statutes when medical treatment for a child conflicts with the religious beliefs of parents, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Additionally, some states have religious exemptions to criminal child abuse and neglect statutes, including at least six that have exemptions to manslaughter laws.

The suffering is the same, the effect is the same, but the determinant of abuse is no longer the effect on the child, by why the parent inflicted the effect.

In some states these laws are so ludicrous that the parents can’t be held liable even if the child dies as a direct result of the parent’s actions:

Such legal exemptions in Idaho and other states mean that if a parent withholds medical treatments for an ailing child and instead opts for spiritual treatment through prayer, the child will not to be considered “neglected” under the law, even if he or she dies. These exemptions are meant to accommodate the teachings of some religious groups, such as Christian Scientists and the Idaho-based Followers of Christ. Some of these groups urge and, in the case of Followers of Christ, sometimes mandate the use of faith-based healing practices in lieu of medical science.


Currently, 19 states and territories have no religious exemptions to civil child abuse and neglect statutes. Tennessee recently became the 19th state when it removed its religious exemption after a girl, whose mother opted for spiritual treatment through prayer, died of cancer.

Nevada and American Samoa have exemptions that do not specifically mention religion, but could apply to religion. For instance, American Samoa’s statute says, “those investigating child abuse must take into account accepted child-rearing practices of the culture in which the child participates.”

The exemptions came into being as a result of federal requirements that no longer exist; they grew out of the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1974. While that statute did not mention religious exemptions specifically, the requirements issued by what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare for states to receive federal funding specified that a religious exemption must be added to the state’s child protection laws. In 1983, this requirement was removed. A religious exemption was added to the text of the law in 1996 but that, too, was removed in 2003. The most recent reauthorization does not include a religious exemption.

Religion: claiming to be good for humankind while also encouraging parents to not only neglect/abuse their own children, but to assume they ought to be free of punishment for doing so.

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