State Repeals Protections For 'Spiritual Treatment'

| by Nik Bonopartis
The Church of Christian Science "mother church" in BostonThe Church of Christian Science "mother church" in Boston

Parents and pastors who insist "spiritual treatment" can substitute for medical care will no longer be immune from prosecution in Tennessee if children are harmed as a result.

Both houses of Tennessee's state legislature voted to repeal a controversial section of the state's child abuse and neglect law, which provides an exemption for people who turn to faith-based treatment methods over proven medicine.

The original exemption was added in 1994 at the request of the Church of Christian Science, according to the Knoxville Commercial Appeal. Members of the church believe physical ailments can be cured by prayer.

The issue received renewed focus after 2002, when 15-year-old Jessica Crank was diagnosed with cancer and her mother, Jacqueline Crank, refused a doctor's urgent advice to bring her daughter to a hospital for treatment. After Jessica's death, Jacqueline and her pastor, Ben Sherman, were indicted on child abuse charges, the News Sentinel reported.

Sherman died while the case was still working its way through the courts, and Jacqueline was eventually convicted, but only because of a technicality -- the court ruled that Sherman's Universal Life Church, which operated out of a rented house, was not a "recognized church or denomination" covered by the exemption, the newspaper reported.

Two state lawmakers -- Republican Sen. Richard Briggs, a cardiac surgeon, and Republican Rep. Andrew Farmer, an attorney -- introduced Senate Bill 1761, aimed at repealing their state's "spiritual treatment" exemption. The bill passed unanimously in the state senate, and passed by an 85-1 vote in the state's lower chamber.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to sign the bill into law, according to the News-Sentinel.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which supported the Republican effort to repeal the exemption, praised the passage of the bill as "a huge triumph for Tennessee's children."

"The victims here are children, too young to comprehend or consent to a course of action that may drastically increase their chances of death or permanent disfigurement," Sam Grover, a staff attorney for FFRF, wrote in a statement. "Religious freedom ends when a person's actions threaten the health or safety of others. We do not let religious parents beat their children, so why do we let them withhold life-saving treatment?"

A Kentucky group called Children's Healthcare Is Legal Duty (CHILD) opposes so-called spiritual treatment, and also thanked Tennessee's legislators for voting to repeal the exemption.

"CHILD believes all parents, regardless of their religious belief, should have a legal duty to obtain medical care for their child when necessary to prevent serious harm," said Rita Swan, the group's president. "Courts have never ruled that parents have a constitutional right to abuse or neglect children in the name of religion, and Tennessee should not give them a statutory right to do so."

Sources: FFRF, Knoxville News Sentinel, Commercial Appeal / Photo credit: Church of Christian Science

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