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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