Testing the bounds of the “spiritual treatment” exception

June 19, 2012

Last month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court accepted for review State v. Neumann, 2012 WL 1500112.  This case involves the application of a statutory exception to child abuse prosecution where a parent relies on “spiritual treatment” or “faith healing,” and whether the parent can then be subject to prosecution for reckless homicide where the child dies due to lack of medical treatment.

The Neumanns were the parents of an 11-year-old girl who died of a diabetes-related condition.  At the time their daughter became sick, the Neumanns were not aware that their daughter had diabetes.  Once the girl started exhibiting symptoms of illness, her condition declined rapidly over the course of 48 hours.  Instead of seeking immediate medical intervention, the Neumanns relied on prayer to heal their daughter.  By the time that conventional medical treatment was sought, it was too late.  With more timely medical treatment, experts testified, the child would almost certainly have recovered.

The Neumanns are not the first parents to face prosecution for failure to secure medical treatment for a child.  A search on WestlawNext for “faith healing” of child turns up numerous cases with similarly tragic facts.  As in the Wisconsin case, others involve state statutory exceptions to criminal prosecution for a parent’s choice to rely on spiritual treatment.  In many of these cases, the issue before the court often does not turn on the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, but rather on the construction of the statutes at issue.

An Ohio court held in State v. Miskimens, 490 N.E.2d 931 (1984), that the state statute governing prosecution for child endangerment was made unconstitutionally vague by its spiritual treatment exception.  The prosecution against the parents was therefore dismissed.

On the flip side, the California case Walker v. Superior Court, 47 Cal.3d 112 (1992), held parents could be prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter and felony child endangerment over the death of their child.  Although the misdemeanor child endangerment statute provided an exception for treatment by prayer, the parents could be prosecuted under the existing felony statutes without infringing on Due Process for failure to provide notice of illegal conduct.

For further discussion, take a look at the Secondary Sources on WestlawNext, again searching “faith healing” of child.  A number of law review articles have tackled this difficult issue over the years.  You might also start with an in-depth review by checking out ALR’s,  Parents’ Criminal Liability for Failure to Provide Medical Attention to Their Children, 118 A.L.R.5th 253.