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Is Refusing Medical Care for Your Child a Religious Freedom?

May 27th, 2016

a doctor

Should religious exemption apply to medical treatment for minors?

Just recently, Mariah Walton publicly exclaimed that she plans to prosecute her parents for failing to seek medical care for her when she was a minor. Mariah, now 20, has pulmonary hypertension, and must carry an oxygen tank around with her (when she is not bedridden) so that she can breathe. Mariah alleges that her now-permanent disability could have easily been treated when she was an infant, or even in later adolescent years. Instead, her parents, who are fundamentalist Mormons citing religious freedom, refused to have doctors treat Mariah and relied on faith and the power of prayer to treat Mariah’s condition.     

State Law: Faith-Based Immunity

In some states, Mariah’s parents could face medical neglect charges for their failure to medically treat their daughter. In Idaho, however, where Mariah and her family reside, state law offers a faith-based shield for felony crimes involving parents who fail to seek medical treatment for their children. Idaho is one of six states that carry these broad immunity laws for parents prosecuted for engaging in faith-based healing rather than seeking standard medical care. In the states with broad immunity laws, parents continue to successfully defend themselves against criminal charges – even in cases where the child dies. Some states that once had these broad immunity laws, such as Oregon and Massachusetts, have since passed legislation narrowing or repealing faith-based immunity laws. The legislation in these states and others resulted from public protest following a string of cases where parents successfully defended their actions based on these immunity laws. For example, Oregon repealed its faith-based immunity laws following a public outcry after a young boy died from untreated diabetes. The boy’s parents were members of the Followers of Christ, and the district attorney refused to prosecute them for the boy’s death.

Federal Law: The Free Exercise Clause

When the parent does not have a statutory defense available to them, can they successfully assert a claim under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment? At this time, precedent indicates that such claim would fail. While the Free Exercise Clause protects an individual’s religious beliefs, it does not offer protection for those that violate laws based on religious beliefs.  Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). Accordingly, it is unlikely that a parent claiming faith-based healing as a defense to a statutory crime such as criminal neglect or manslaughter would succeed under the Free Exercise Clause because of the violation of other statutory laws.

What About Mariah?

As for Mariah, she will likely face an uphill battle as Idaho still has the faith-based immunity defense available. Despite the fact that Mariah’s condition was treatable by minor medical procedures, her parents will probably succeed in a defense that they acted in accordance with their faith and beliefs in their efforts to treat Mariah using prayer and spiritual healing. Had the events taken place in another state, such as Oregon, Mariah’s parents would not have any immunity laws to lean on, and any defense or claim under the Free Exercise Clause would likely fail. As Mariah’s case evolves, the Universal Life Church will continue to monitor it and any applicable laws or judgments.

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