By Adriana Clark
When it comes to being a fit parent, the bare minimum has to be making sure your child stays alive. Every state has laws that protect children from abuse and neglect, and these laws generally require parents to seek medical care for their children when they need it. However, most states also have exceptions to these laws that allow parents to rely on “faith healing” for their children without being held liable or criminally prosecuted for medical neglect. As a result, parents who believe that their church leader’s laying of the hands is enough to cure their child of pneumonia will not run into any trouble with the law when that child dies a preventable death.
Recently, a study done on the Followers of Christ Church in Idaho found that the church’s mandated faith-based healing practices had deadly consequences for children. Children in the Followers of Christ Church are four times more likely to die before reaching the age of 1 than any other child in the general population. For toddlers (ages 1-3), the mortality rate for Followers of Christ is 2.5 times higher. And more than 90% of the 200 children who died of preventable illness due to faith healing practices would have lived if they had been treated with modern medicine. But under Idaho law, “the practice of a parent or guardian who chooses for his 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.”
Arizona has a civil medical neglect statute that is supposed to protect children from abuse and neglect by their caretakers. But the law has an exception that reads, “No child who in good faith is being furnished Christian Science treatment by a duly accredited practitioner shall, for that reason alone, be considered to be an abused, neglected or dependent child.” So parents can’t be held liable for neglecting to take their sick child to the doctor if they choose to rely on faith healing instead.
In 1982, the Department of Economic Security filed a petition requesting that seven children be adjudged dependent after the death of their sibling, 6-year-old Therial Drew. Mrs. Drew said that religious reasons prevented her from seeking medical care for the remaining children in the future. The Arizona Supreme Court held that because the children were not sick at the moment, there was no reason to supersede the mother’s religious rights. The Court did allow DES to supervise the family for future neglect, but the mother was not held liable for the death of her child, whom she didn’t take to the doctor when he first became ill because she believed a miracle from God would save him.
Religious parents also get an exception under Arizona’s criminal medical neglect statute. While there is no religious exemption to criminal liability for parents failing to provide medical care based on faith, there is a broad exception to the reporting requirement for clergy and Christian Science practitioners. That means that members of the clergy, Christian Science practitioners, and priests have no duty to report child abuse or neglect that they learn about through confession or other confidential communication. For example, in 2022, a Bisbee father told his Mormon bishop that he was sexually abusing his five year-old daughter. The bishop called the Mormon Abuse Help Line and was told that under Arizona law, he was under no obligation to report the father’s actions to the authorities. As a result, the girl was abused for seven more years, until her father was finally arrested. He committed suicide in jail. His children are now suing the Mormon Church for their role in allowing the abuse to continue.
It is unclear why Christian Science in particular continues to be singled out for this special treatment. The faith successfully lobbied for special exemptions in the 1970s, and the laws have hardly been touched since. Arizona is home to 56 Christian Science Churches. Adherents are “committed to spiritual healing that includes both physical cures of disease and dysfunction as well as the reformation and restoration of lives.” At its core, Christian Science teaches that because human beings are not matter, but spirit, illness and mental suffering are not real and can be overcome through prayer.
Although their website says that church members are not discouraged from seeking medical treatment, the Christian Science Church is involved in many of the most prominent cases involving parental liability where children died after not being provided adequate medical care. When one Washington Christian Scientist wanted to take her feverish son to a doctor, her Christian Science practitioner said she would no longer give the child prayer treatments and blamed his failure to recover on the mother’s doubts.
Washington and Connecticut are the only other states that have exemptions specifically mentioning Christian Science. The Arizona statute used to be even broader. Prior to 1997, the religious exemption stated that “no child who in good faith is being furnished Christian Science treatment by a duly accredited practitioner shall, for that reason alone,” be considered a dependent child. Now, having a Christian Science practitioner pray for a child does not create grounds for state intervention as long as the child is also being provided with adequate medical care, food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities.
Some states have made efforts to get rid of faith healing exemptions. For example, in 2011, Oregon ended its religious defense for faith healers in cases of homicide and criminal mistreatment of children. Washington has introduced bills to change its exemption, but they have never passed, even as the Democrats gained control of the Senate.
Parents who subject their children to faith healing don’t necessarily practice what they preach. Adults in Idaho’s Followers of Christ community often secretly seek medical care for themselves while denying it for their children. One couple watched their 2-year-old die from untreated pneumonia, but had no problem seeing a doctor for their own issues.
The whole point of child neglect laws is to protect children who depend on the adults in their lives to take care of them. A toddler cannot walk himself to the hospital or insist on seeing a doctor. Parents who let their children die preventable deaths should not be held to a different standard just because they claim membership in a religious sect. As the Arizona Supreme Court said after the death of poor Therial Drew, “If there is a direct collision of a child’s right to good health and a parent’s religious beliefs, the parent’s rights must give way.” Arizona’s religious exemption laws are in conflict with this statement, the Establishment Clause’s prohibition against special treatment for certain religious practices, and the fundamental rights of children.
Adriana Clark is a recent law school graduate and legal fellow with Secular AZ.