Religion, Death, and the Law. (God on Trial)

By Harwood, William | Free Inquiry, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Religion, Death, and the Law. (God on Trial)


Harwood, William, Free Inquiry


There are American states in which Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists who kill their children by denying them lifesaving blood transfusions or other medical procedures can escape the consequences of their crime by pleading "freedom of religion." Currently thirty-nine states' civil codes include religious exemptions from child abuse or neglect charges, while thirty-one allow a religious defense to a criminal charge. (1) In a study of 172 child deaths where medical treatment was withheld on religious grounds, it was found that 140 children would have had at least a 90 percent likelihood of survival with medical care. (2)

The 1996 Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) did not include "a Federal requirement that a parent or guardian provide a child any medical service or treatment against the religious beliefs of the parent or guardian." (3) A senator from Indiana and a congressman from Pennsylvania, both Republicans (so what else is new?), have actually argued that parents have a First Amendment right to withhold medical care from their children. (4) Even in those states where homicidal child neglect is prosecuted, defendants are allowed to offer the jury a defense based on sectarian beliefs not held by other religions. Why?

The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Under that amendment, any law, court ruling, or jury verdict that denies adherents of a minority religion or belief system the rights granted to practitioners of all other belief systems would be unconstitutional. Christians are permitted to swear oaths on the sacred book of their choice; therefore Jews and Muslims must be permitted to swear oaths on the sacred books of their choice, and nontheists permitted to "affirm" rather than "swear" under the same penalty of perjury.

But just as the First Amendment prohibits denying to adherents of designated religions rights granted to all others, so does it prohibit granting to designated religions rights not enjoyed by all others. Laws criminalizing homicide by neglect are applicable to the whole population. They are not laws respecting an establishment of religion. Since killing children by substituting prayer for necessary medical procedures is a criminal offense for Catholics, that makes it a criminal offense for Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses as well. …

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