Tennessee repeals law protecting Christian Scientists from child abuse prosecution

Tennessee repeals law protecting Christian Scientists from child abuse prosecution

Tennessee has a law on the books making aggravated child abuse a felony. Aggravated child abuse includes, among other things, abuse, neglect or endangerment that "results in serious bodily injury to the child" or is "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel" or involves torture of the child.

However, if the child's serious injury or cruelty to the child happened because the child was receiving 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," the law offered a way out. Spiritual treatment, even if it resulted in the death of the child, was a legally recognized defense to a charge of aggravated child abuse.

Fortunately, the Tennessee Legislature just passed, and the Governor signed, a bill repealing this spiritual treatment defense to child abuse charges. Unfortunately, the death of a child at the hands of a spiritual healer was necessary to bring this despicable law to the attention of the public and legislators.

According to CHILD (Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty), in 1994, the Christian Science church promoted this religious exemption to child abuse. An exemption was duly enacted by the Tennessee Legislature without so much as a debate or discussion.

A few years later, in 2002, teenager Jessica Crank developed a severe pain in her shoulder. Despite being told by at least two health care practitioners to take Jessica to the hospital immediately, her mother and "spiritual father" failed to do so.They kept Jessica at home and relied on prayer and ritual. Finally, the teen was hospitalized under court order but died later that year of Ewing's sarcoma. Her mother and "spiritual father" were charged with aggravated child neglect. Their case bounced up and down the Tennessee court system for the next 13 years.

It was not a simple case of whether a religious exemption from prosecution for a crime is unconstitutional. Jessica's mother and "spiritual father," Ariel Ben Sherman, were not practitioners of a "recognized" religion. The peripatetic Sherman had had ministries in many states and mail-order certificates of ordination. Therefore, one of the contested issues was whether they were entitled to the religious exemption at all.

During the course of the litigation, a Tennessee Assistant Attorney General advised the prosecutor, Frank Harvey, in a memo why Tennessee's religious exception law was unconstitutional.

"It violates the Establishment Clause, . . . because it prefers one religion over another and violates the Free Exercise clause because it is not neutral on religion and regulates practices on the basis of 'their religious motivation.' . . . The religious exception was unconstitutionally vague in privileging a 'recognized church.' There is no 'case law, statutory guidance or even consensus among citizens' about which churches are recognized . . ."

In a way, the statute was doubly unconstitutional: It privileged practitioners of religion over others who were prosecuted for child abuse. But not just any religious practitioners, only those "accredited" practitioners operating under the auspices of a "recognized" church. 

Prosecutor Harvey is a real hero in this story. He doggedly pursued Jessica's mother and Sherman through repeated setbacks at the appellate level, even in the face of the state's Attorney General defending the law on appeal, despite a promise not to do so. CHILD filed amicus briefs urging the appellate courts to overturn the religious exemption law, whether it applied to these defendants or not.

Ultimately, Jessica's mother and "spiritual father" were convicted of misdemeanor neglect and sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation. He died during the course of the appeals.The last appellate court to rule on the case upheld the mother's conviction, based on its acceptance of the argument that she was not entitled to the statute's benefit because its protections were

"effectively limited to members of religious groups that closely resemble the Christian Science Church."

In other words, had Jessica's mom joined the "right" church, she might have walked free.

The only remedy left was with the Tennessee Legislature. CHILD retained a former minister and respected lobbyist to lobby for repeal of the religious exception to child abuse. Later, CHILD founder Rita Swan joined the effort, as did the Tennessee Medical Association, Tennessee Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee. Sen. Richard Briggs, MD, got a bill passed unanimously in committee and onto the Senate Floor.

The Christian Science Church agreed not to oppose the bill and said it would openly support it if a provision were introduced adding a religious exemption to civil neglect of a child. CHILD and others supporting repeal refused.

The church's general counsel, a church member who claims he was healed as an infant, was, according to CHILD, asked

"repeatedly if the church . . . expects its prayer practitioners to know when a child should be taken to a doctor and if they, like the parents, had any responsibility to the child."

The church's lawyer would not answer.

In CHILD's view, the Christian Science church does not appear to be fighting any longer for exemptions from criminal liability for parents whose choice of prayer over effective medical care for their children results in harm to the child.

"They still want recognition of their spiritual treatments as one more alternative medicine in a New Age smorgasbord, which may be a strategy for protecting their practitioners, who bill for their prayers and want to function as health care providers but take no responsibility for what happens to their patients."

The Christian Science church fits quite comfortably into the CAM healthcare landscape. Chiropractic subluxations, naturopathic vitalism, the flow of "qi" along acupuncture meridians, universal life force, healing energy, and foot-based organs are all of the same mold. It's magic medicine. It never cures, but it sure can kill

Points of Interest 07/12/2016
Points of Interest 07/09/2016

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