Toughest church-states battles: When faith-healing doctrines lead to children dying

Anyone who has studied the separation of church and state knows that there are all kinds of issues in this field that cry out for compromise -- but compromises acceptable to both sides are often next to impossible to find.

No, I am not talking about LGBTQ issues that pit religious liberty against emerging concepts of sexual liberty.

I'm talking about cases in which the religious convictions of parents -- specifically the belief that all medical issues should be handled through prayer and "natural" remedies -- lead to the death of children. Basically, courts are being asked to draw a line limiting parental rights, when it comes to a contest between faith and modern medicine.

As a rule, state officials are supposed to avoid becoming entangled in matters of faith and doctrine. However, there are limits. Here at GetReligion, I have repeatedly noted that state officials have the right to intervene when cases involve fraud, profit and clear threat to life and health. "Faith healing" cases pivot on whether a religious group's teachings represent a "clear threat" to believers, especially children.

A reader recently pointed me to a massive PennLive.com (Gannett newspapers in Central Pennsylvania) report that ran under the headline: "God's will vs. medicine: Does Faith Tabernacle beliefs put children at risk?"

I want to stress that there is much to recommend in this piece, including the fact that it places debates about Pennsylvania law affecting "faith healing" in the context of ongoing national debates about Christian Science, the teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the traditions of the Amish and others. There are places where I would question the wording used by the PennLive.com team, but I still want to salute the research done here.

This piece is way better than the norm on this difficult topic. Here is a long, but crucial passage:

A fundamental church, Faith Tabernacle rejects any form of medical care. The church believes disease is a moral issue, the result of being out of relationship with God. The remedy must be a spiritual one. These beliefs have once again come under scrutiny after the death of toddler whose parents -- members of Faith Tabernacle -- abided by their religious convictions and relied on prayer rather than medicine.
Ella Grace Foster was two when she died in November from pneumonia. Authorities say she likely would have survived had she received medical care.
Authorities earlier this month charged Jonathan and Grace Foster of Berks County with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. The Fosters, who are members of Mechanicsburg-based Faith Tabernacle congregation, attributed the toddler's death to "God's will."
"Any illness or injuries that occur within their lives are considered acts of God, and they leave all of their faith in God to keep them safe, healthy and debt free," Jonathan Foster told authorities, according to court records.

OK, I have a question: What is a "fundamental" church and how is that different than a "fundamentalist" church?

I ask because it is rare to find links between "faith healing" cases and the actual doctrines of fundamentalist Protestantism. It is much more common for Pentecostal Christians to link their beliefs in prayer and healing to the denial of modern medical science. Do editors at PennLive.com realize that fundamentalist Christians and Pentecostal Christians are to very different flocks? Did they interview experts on the doctrinal issues there?

The real church-state debate begins here, a few lines later:

Pennsylvania is one of 32 states that offer a religious exemption to state child abuse protection laws. The statute extends a religious defense, in civil court, to parents who rely on spiritual treatment in accordance with their faith's beliefs.
That exemption does not protect them from criminal prosecution. Religious exemptions don't apply in cases in which a child dies.
"We've failed our children here," said Dr. Paul Offit, professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and long-time advocate dedicated to overturning Pennsylvania's religious exemption. "I think this in many ways is America's dirty little secret."

Now, here is the point I want to stress. This piece makes it sound like this is a story involving (a) people who support the rights of "faith healing" flocks and (b) those who oppose laws that protect "faith healing" believers.

There are two sides -- nice and neat. The reality is more complex than that, as is often the case in religious-liberty disputes.

This story has plenty of material from faith-healing critics and that point of view is essential. Readers are also told, in very blunt terms, what this particular faith-healing group believes. It's clear that reporters attempted to interview Faith Tabernacle leaders about their beliefs, but were met with silence.

So what is missing here?

Where are the voices of church-state experts who have tried -- FOR DECADES -- to protect the rights of believers on these matters, right up to the line of clear threat to life and health? Where are the people who have worked with religious groups (many of these cases are linked to Jehovah's Witnesses) to protect parental rights to every degree that is possible, while also protecting children? Where are the voices of the legal teams for religious groups that believe in faith healing, but are willing to compromise under specific circumstances involving the health of children (as opposed to adult believers who are free to make their own choices)? Where are the voices of religious believers who truly believe that God can and does heal, but who also embrace the work of modern doctors?

In other words, where are the church-state experts and religious thinkers who are in the middle? I am talking about the people -- conservatives, liberals, etc. -- who want to protect parental rights and the doctrinal rights of religious groups in every way possible, but who also recognize the agonizing compromises needed with children are involved in these matter.

The bottom line: This story offers agonizing details about the current cases in Pennsylvania and cases in the past. It also points to older, and wider, debates on these topics. But where are the church-state expects who have sought compromises? This is a case in which trying to talk to the Faith Tabernacle leaders is not the only way to seek voices on the other wide, or in the middle, of this debate.

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