When a child dies, faith is no defense

"Suffer little children to come to me ..." So begins one of the most cited passages in the Bible. Yet, in cases involving the deaths of children in faith-healing families, the second half of Jesus's admonition from Luke 18:16 is at the heart of legal controversy: "... and forbid them not."

In the past 25 years, hundreds of children are believed to have died in the United States after faith-healing parents forbade medical attention to end their sickness or protect their lives. When minors die from a lack of parental care, it is usually a matter of criminal neglect and is often tried as murder. But courts routinely hand down lighter sentences when parents say the neglect was an article of faith. Faithful neglect has not been used as a criminal defense, but the claim is surprisingly effective in achieving more lenient sentencing, in which judges appear to render less unto Caesar and more unto God.

This disparate treatment was evident last month in Wisconsin, where child abuse laws have an exemption for faith-based neglect. Leilani and Dale Neumann were sentenced for allowing daughter Madeline Kara Neumann, 11, to die in 2008 from a treatable form of diabetes. The Neumanns prayed with other members of a faith-healing church called Unleavened Bread Ministries while Madeline died. They could have received 25 years in prison. Instead, the court gave them each six months in jail (to be served one month a year) and 10 years' probation.

Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Howard said the Neumanns are "very good people raising their family who made a bad decision, a reckless decision." He gently encouraged them to remember that "God probably works through other people, some of them doctors."

Compare the Neumanns' legal treatment with other recent cases in which children were injured or killed by nonreligious neglect. Alex Washburn, 22 months, died after hitting his head at home in Cross Lanes, W.Va. His parents, Elizabeth Dawn Thornton and Christopher Steven Washburn, said the boy fell a lot and hit his head on the corner of a table and his chin on a toilet. They apologized for not seeking medical help and agreed to hand over custody of their other children to the state. "I wish I did seek medical treatment for my son faster," Washburn testified. "That will definitely be with me for the rest of my life."

The court sentenced both parents to three to 15 years in prison.

So the Neumanns got one month in jail for six years and retained custody, and the Washburns got up to 15 years in prison and relinquished custody.

In a nation founded on the free exercise of religion, the legal system has long struggled with parents who act both criminally and faithfully in their children's deaths. One of the earliest prosecutions of such a case occurred in England in the 1800s, when a sect known only as the Peculiar People (a name derived from a translation of the phrase "chosen people" from the book of Deuteronomy) were accused of killing numerous children as a result of faith-healing practices.

Today, many sects such as Unleavened Bread Ministries have prospered. The vast majority of fundamentalist and faith-healing parents avail themselves of a doctor's care in a dire medical condition. But some take literally the fact that one of the names of God in the Old Testament, Jehovah-Rapha, means "I am the Lord your Physician," and cite Exodus 15:26, where God says, "I am the Lord that heals you." In the four Gospels, Jesus heals the sick.

The advocacy group Children's Health Care Is a Legal Duty estimates that roughly 300 children have died in the United States since 1975 because care was withheld. Their parents often testify that they love their children and their God — an argument that receives a sympathetic hearing from judges and prosecutors.

Unlike most defendants, the Neumanns remained unrepentant about not calling emergency personnel until after Madeline stopped breathing. Leilani Neumann said, "I do not regret trusting truly in the Lord for my daughter's health." Dale Neumann told the court: "I am guilty of trusting my Lord's wisdom completely. ... Guilty of asking for heavenly intervention. Guilty of following Jesus Christ when the whole world does not understand. Guilty of obeying my God."

In Oregon, the Followers of Christ church has been cited for injuries and deaths associated with its faith-healing beliefs for decades. Larry Lewman, an Oregon state medical examiner, estimated that in one 10-year period, the church experienced 25 child deaths related to faith-based medical neglect. In 2008, 15-month-old Ava Worthington fell ill. Her parents, Carl Brent Worthington and Raylene Worthingon, allowed a simple cyst on her neck to grow to the size of a softball as they anointed her with oil and administered small amounts of wine, according to trial testimony. Ava died of a blood infection and pneumonia.

Judge Steven Maurer, a circuit court judge in Clackamas County, Ore., said he would "stand by my assessment that this was wrong, wrong, wrong. This was an unnecessary tragedy." But the prosecutor asked for six months in prison, half the maximum sentence for misdemeanor criminal mistreatment. Maurer gave Carl Brent Worthington two months in jail and five years' probation. Despite the record of deaths and injuries at their church, the Worthingtons were allowed to keep custody of their 5-year-old daughter and a new baby that was coming in a matter of months. They needed only to promise to bring them to a doctor for scheduled checkups.

Now another trial is pending for the family: Raylene Worthington's parents, Jeff and Marci Beagley, were charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of son Neil Beagley, 16, who died in 2008 from a urinary tract blockage that could have been treated with a minor surgical procedure. In such cases, the legal system risks becoming a facilitator, if not an accessory, to the crimes through lenient sentencing.

These cases have thrived in a gray zone left by the Supreme Court decades ago. In 1944, in Prince v. Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease, or the latter to ill health or death." The court, however, did not expressly forbid the use of faith as a mitigating factor in sentencing — a matter left to the states. Not only does this use place children at risk, it results in the troubling image of courts favoring religious parents over nonreligious parents in a nation committed to the separation of church and state.

The key to using such a defense is that it must involve belief in a divine being, not a particular lifestyle. In 2007, Jade Sanders and Lamont Thomas of Atlanta were convicted of malice murder and given life sentences for the death of their 6-week-old child. The defense attorneys cited the couple's strict vegan lifestyle to explain why they fed soy milk and organic apple juice to their newborn. During the trial Sanders said she had also breast-fed her son, who died at 6 weeks weighing just 3 1/2 pounds. The court had no qualms in treating this couple's beliefs as a poor excuse for murder. The prosecutor even told the jury, "They're not vegans, they're baby-killers."

The next test of the faith-based defense will be in Philadelphia, where prosecutors last month charged Herbert and Catherine Schaible in the January death of their son, Kent Schaible, 2, from bacterial pneumonia. The Schaibles and other adults practiced prayer and faith-healing for two weeks without seeking medical assistance. Then they called a funeral home. The couple were charged with involuntary manslaughter and other related crimes.

Denying children critical care may be divinely ordained for some parents, but it should not be countenanced by the legal system. Until courts refuse to accept religion as a mitigating factor in sentencing in such cases, children will continue to die, neglected as an article of their parents' faith.

Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University, is a practicing criminal defense lawyer.

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