If I get sick, please don’t pray for me. Instead, get me to a doctor.
Don’t do what the obviously very faithful Dale and Leilani Neumann of Weston, Wisconsin (a rural town near Wausau, smack dab in the middle of the state) did for their eleven-year-old daughter, Kara. Kara was very sick because she had juvenile diabetes. She had been sick for between three to thirty days, depending on who you talk to, and her parents prayed for her and enlisted the help of their pastor to pray for her. Aside from seeking God’s intervention to make Kara well again, they did not seek any other kind of medical assistance or intervention. But despite her parents’ prayers, despite the fervent and earnest entreaties of her pastor for God to save her, Kara did not get better. She died on Easter Sunday.
Kara didn’t need prayers. She needed insulin.
You might think that prayer can work miracles and heal people. I don’t want to challenge that directly right now, although that is a rich subject of discussion. But chances are good that even if you think that prayer can help someone who is sick, you would still send that sick person to a doctor, and get the benefit of both prayer and medical science. In this case, you’d probably say, don’t stop praying for her, but get her some insulin. Belt and suspenders. Do whatever is reasonably within your power to make my child better. That’s what a responsible parent would do. But that’s not what the Neumanns did.
So, the Marathon County District Attorney has charged Mr. and Mrs. Neumann with second-degree homicide, for recklessly withholding medical care leading to the death of a human being. Now, obviously the Neumanns did not want their daughter to die. Clearly, they loved their daughter and wanted her to get better — they weren’t praying for her death, they were praying for her to get well. And it’s very easy to have one’s heart go out to them — they did what they had been told and taught was right to do, they did what they believed with all their faith and hearts told them what to do, and they have had to bury their daughter who they obviously loved very dearly.
But why do we punish people for committing crimes?
One reason is to exact revenge on behalf of society for when something bad happens to someone. If you are as outraged as I am that parents would simply stand by and do nothing when the availability of medical care is so obvious and so available, then maybe you are a little bit of desire for revenge here.
Another reason is to prevent other people from committing the same crime. Prosecuting the Neumanns will demonstrate to other people that prayer alone is not enough.
The Neumanns may have a statutory defense. Wis. Stat. 948.03(6) provides: “Treatment through prayer. A person is not guilty of an offense under this section solely because he or she provides a child with treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone for healing in accordance with the religious method of healing permitted under s. 48.981 (3) (c) 4. or 448.03 (6) in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.”
I note, though, that Wis. Stat. 948.03 only applies to charges of physical abuse of a minor, not to charges of homicide. The clause “under this section” limits the scope of this defense on its face. There is a section of Wis. Stat. 948 that applies to neglect leading to death. But homicide is covered under a different section of the Wisconsin statutes. The question, then, will be whether the Wisconsin Legislature intended to create a religion-based defense to all charges of reckless conduct or only reckless physical endangerment.
If I were the judge, I would likely not allow that defense to be raised. I cannot think of any other result than that the exception should be limited to its most narrow possible reading, which is to say that it may only be raised to offenses arising under Wis. Stat. 948 and therefore not to a charge of homicide. When the defense attorney said that these people were only practicing what their religion told them to do, my instinctive reaction would be to say, “Too bad. Employment Division v. Smith says that a law of general application can be enforced even against a good-faith religious command to the contrary. The prohibition against homicide is as general a scope of application of the law as can possibly exist, so your clients need to answer the charges on the merits.” The Free Exercise Clause does not provide a defense to a charge of murder, nor was it ever intended to.
But more than that, the existence of a “faith exception” to a child abuse la really bugs me — not as an armchair judge of this specific case, but rather as a person who takes the idea of separation of church and state seriously. So far as I can tell, pretty much only Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Christian Scientists can avail themselves of this defense. But isn’t it more a little bit unfair to give people who follow certain religions a defense to crimes that are not available to people of other religions?
And, why should we allow a defense to a crime, specifically a crime endangering the safety and life of a child, based on a religious belief? We would not hesitate to punish adherents of a religion that considered buggering little boys to be a holy sacrament and of spiritual value to the young victims, no matter how good-faith that perverted belief might be held. Why, then, should we defer to the weird beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Scientists, who would withhold even the simplest medical care in even the most dire of emergencies?
(Could it be that our society does not want to start going down the road of saying that some religious beliefs are obviously incorrect and false, for fear of where that one step down that slippery slope will lead? After all, if we as a society pronounce that all religious beliefs are equally valid, and the no-medicine teachings of Christian Science are obviously incorrect, then what does that say about other religions? Better, then, to permit injustice in a few cases rather than get people questioning whether all religions are simply a bunch of Bronze Age mumbo-jumbo that should be relegated to the “historical fiction” and “mythology” sections of the bookstore.)
The idea that we can lawfully and morally excuse what people like the Neumanns did on the basis of religious faith is abhorrent. I feel bad for them that their daughter died, and worse that they were misled by the charlatans calling themselves “ministers” who told them that doctors do more harm than good. But they have to be held responsible for what they’ve done; it’s not good enough to blame their faith for what happened. And others need to see this example, too. Maybe then, fewer children will die.
If the sentence for second-degree homicide is too harsh for the purposes of justice — these people have suffered plenty already; their daughter is dead, and we need not minimize the very real and awful pain that must cause them — then that is why the Governors of the various states have the power to commute sentences or issue pardons. Once they are convicted, Governor Doyle could easily say, “These people have been through enough. Their daughter has died. They’ve had their faith shaken. They’ve been prosecuted and found guilty of causing the death of their own flesh and blood. So I hereby commute their sentences to time already served, and instruct that they be released from state custody with all due dispatch.” I doubt the Governor would catch much political flak for doing something like that. That might be the right result — but after they’ve been convicted.
In the meantime, I hope the Wisconsin Legislature re-examines Stat. 948.03(6). Like I said before, it just doesn’t seem fair for people of one particular religion to get a defense to a criminal law when people of other religions don’t. The law should be for everyone, equally.