“Religious Convictions”: When Children Die, Religion Is No Defense

300px-AbrahamHere is today’s column from the Washington Post on the benefits of a new type of “good-faith” defense. While “religious convictions” are usually a reference to personal faith, it turns out that it has a distinct and disturbing meaning for criminal sentencing.

“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. However, when parents say the neglect was an article of faith, courts routinely hand down lighter sentences. While faithful neglect makes for a poor criminal defense, it 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, a state with an exemption for faith-based neglect under its child abuse laws. Leilani and Dale Neumann were sentenced for allowing their 11-year-old daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, to die in 2008 from an undiagnosed but treatable form of diabetes. The Neumanns are affiliated with a faith-healing church called Unleavened Bread Ministries and continued to pray with other members while Madeline died. They could have received 25 years in prison. Instead, the court emphasized their religious rationale and gave them each six months in jail (to be served one month a year) and 10 years’ probation.

During their sentencing, 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 then gently encouraged them to remember that “God probably works through other people, some of them doctors.”

Compare the Neumanns’ legal treatment with a couple of other recent cases in which children were injured or killed by nonreligious neglect. Russell J. Wozniak Jr. and Jennifer Ann Wozniak, of Chippewa Falls, Wis., received basically the same sentence as the Neumanns for, the criminal complaint said, allowing their 2-year-old to wander around covered in vomit and wearing a full diaper.

Then there are the parents of Alex Washburn. The 22-month-old 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 terminate their parental rights to their other children, handing over custody to the state. “I wish I did seek medical treatment for my son faster,” Washburn told the court. “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 kept custody of their children, and the Washburns got up to 15 years in prison and agreed to give up their kids.

In a nation founded on the free exercise of religion, the legal system struggles with parents who act both criminally and faithfully in the deaths of their children. This paradox has perplexed courts for centuries. One of the earliest prosecutions of such a case occurred in England in the 1800s, when the crown charged followers of a sect known only as the Peculiar People, a name derived from a translation of the phrase “chosen people” from the book of Deuteronomy. They were accused of killing numerous children as a result of faith-healing practices.

Today, the Old Peculiars are largely gone (their faith-healing views thinned their numbers considerably), but many other sects such as Unleavened Bread Ministries have prospered. While the vast majority of fundamentalist and faith-healing parents avail themselves of a doctor’s care when faced with a dire medical condition, some religious parents continue to maintain that belief in God means belief in His power and discretion to heal. They 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 point to Exodus 15:26, where God says, “I am the Lord that heals you.”

In the four Gospels, Jesus heals the sick, including in Mark 5:34, where He cures a hemorrhaging girl who was unsuccessfully treated by doctors, saying: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace! Be cured from your illness.”

Some parents go to incredible lengths to prevent doctors from doing God’s work. Colleen Hauser of Minnesota gained national attention in May when she went into hiding with her 13-year-old son to avoid a court order that he receive chemotherapy for a Hodgkin’s lymphoma tumor growing in his chest. She was eventually forced to yield; this month, her son finished his final radiation treatment and his family says his cancer is gone.

But the Hauser case is an exception. 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. When such parents appear in court, they often insist that they love their children and their God – an argument that receives a sympathetic hearing from judges and prosecutors.

While defendants generally show contrition for their actions, 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. In one 10-year period, estimated Larry Lewman, an Oregon state medical examiner, the church experienced 25 child deaths related to faith-based medical neglect. A recent case involved Ava Worthington, a 15-month-old who fell ill in 2008. Rather than call doctors, her parents – Carl Brent Worthington and Raylene Worthington — 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 testimony at the trial. She died of a blood infection and pneumonia.

Judge Steven L. 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.” However, 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 their 16-year-old son, Neil Beagley. He died in 2008 from a urinary tract blockage that could have been treated with a minor surgical procedure. In cases such as this, in which courts confront repeated faith-based fatalities in a single religious community, 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 “good-faith” exception 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 the use of 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 their newborn son a diet of soy milk and organic apple juice, though during the trial Sanders said she had also breast-fed her son, who died in an emaciated state at 6 weeks, weighing just 3 1/2 pounds. The prosecutor and court had no qualms in treating this couple’s beliefs as a poor excuse for murder, calling a nutritionist and vegan expert as a witness to show that a vegan diet can be safe for an infant. In a stark contrast with religious cases, the prosecutor 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. His parents and other adults prayed around him, practicing faith-healing for two weeks without seeking medical assistance. Then they called a funeral home. The couple was 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 articles of their parents’ faith.

Washington Post (Sunday: November 15, 2009

21 thoughts on ““Religious Convictions”: When Children Die, Religion Is No Defense”

  1. This is totally beyond the pale of all human decency and it still happens every single day ! Bruce

  2. Your readers might be interested to know about Children’s Healthcare Is A Legal Duty (CHILD) http://www.childrenshealthcare.org , an advocacy organization that seeks to protect children by removing religious exemptions. That website lists dozens of jaw-dropping religious exemptions to all kinds of crimes, from homocide to wearing bike helmets. It astounds me that as a culture we will protect children from peanuts but not from obvious medical neglect. Thank you for shedding some light on this important issue.

  3. Again, I’m amazed at the conscious, willful ignorance that people embrace just so they “be gwine up to hebbin” when they die.

  4. Is it acceptable or not acceptable to interfere with the religious teachings of an adult and child when the child’s health is at issue?

    Wall Street co-opted early H1N1 vaccines for its employees. The CDC suggests that all children over 6 months of age are at risk and should be vaccinated against H1N1. The supply of vaccine is limited. Last week the CDC announced an uptick in the deaths of unvaccinated American children from Swine Flu. So far, there are no reports of Swine Flu deaths on Wall Street.

    Perhaps interfering between some adults and children when a child’s health is at risk would be helpful. Why limit the interference to just religion?

  5. Professor Turley,

    From your post:

    “Then there are the parents of Alex Washburn. The 22-month-old 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 terminate their parental rights to their other children, handing over custody to the state.”


    That sends up a red flag to me. Could it be that little Alex was an abused child and that Washburn and Thornton didn’t take him to a doctor who might have gotten suspicious about the child’s injuries?

    I’m a former teacher and my daughter is a licensed social worker. We live in Massachusetts. In our state, doctors, teachers, social workers, and many other professionals are required by law to file a 51A and report any kind of suspected abuse and/or neglect of children they come in contact with to the Dept. of Social Services. I would assume this would probably be required in many other/most states as well.


  6. This article misses the biggest reasons for these lighter sentences: differences in criminal records. People who withhold treatment from their children for religious reasons generally do not have criminal records. People who withhold treatment out of laziness or selfishness frequently have prior convictions. Prior criminal record is frequently the biggest factor in sentencing enhancements.

    There are a few reasons why these religious parents do not tend to have criminal backgrounds. They tend not to drink heavily. They are sexually conservative. They frequently spurn materialism. These factors lead away from a criminal lifestyle.

    I also take issue with this article’s interpretation of the vegan case. It sounds like the court doubted the sincerity of the vegan claims in the first place. He said as much when he said, “They’re not vegans . . .”

  7. Professor Turley, Thank-you for the excellent article.

    Mespo and Buddha, your comments as always are worthwhile reading.

    Mespo: “The issue here is the institutional ignorance of some religions in denying the obvious progress of science.”

    Buddha: “If one bases decisions based upon belief, it is a recipe for disaster.”

    I would be interested to know whether their religious beliefs would have allowed them to seek medical attention if their child’s critical condition had been caused by a more directly obvious and observable event like MVA, GSW, stabbing, fall or some other accident or trauma. (Although I seriously doubt they would call 911 for a lightening strike!)

    These tragic deaths are heartbreaking and show a complete lack of respect and reverence for the very fragility and gift of each individual’s life.

    I don’t know what this says about me, but I have as little tolerance for these religious groups’ behavior as I do for the bystanders (gang members) who stood by, watched and cheered while a young girl was beaten and raped (Richmond) or a young boy beaten and killed(Chicago).

    Again, maybe it just me (and probably a stretch) but I see gross similarities in these groups; sociopaths with a weird narcissism, true believers with a warped world view, the use of group think etc. and likewise (actually more so as they were adults), I wish to see the religious participants, who sat bedside in a prayer circle, prosecuted for aiding and abetting!

  8. “… Reason and The Rule of Law are the only two things keeping us from totally self-destructing as a species.”


    Remove ’em and you have a pretty good definition of Darfur or Somalia, and on and on.

  9. AY & mespo,

    I’m going to place my bets that Reason and The Rule of Law are the only two things keeping us from totally self-destructing as a species. Not only are they critical, they are inexorably intertwined. The Rule of Law has no value when not rooted in the soil of Reason as it is a fiction – a reflection of belief instead of testable verifiable reality. If one bases decisions based upon belief, it is a recipe for disaster. Gravity is the most democratic force in the universe. But Mr. Rev. Right Hr. Fr. Billy Bob Mohesh Mohamed Jesus Leisure Suit tells me that God says gravity is a lie and Newton was a “disagreeable panty waist”. If I choose to believe him and walk off a cliff despite the evidence that not only does gravity exist, but it sucks and is most certainly not my friend? Well that’s the price of making decisions based on belief versus fact: Natural Selection will get you. If one examines action, cause and effect and relegates belief to it’s proper (and lesser) place as a component of motive, the analysis becomes easier. Religion can never be an excuse accepted for causing harm to another. If so, then the door is open for any belief, rational or not, to become an excuse. And at that point, reason goes on vacation.

  10. Vince,

    Thank you. are you a front man for Professor Turley? Seems like a good match.

    The only question I have is, where will interference end in a house where religion is paramount to a person?

  11. “Jonathan Turley, professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and practicing criminal defense attorney, will be online Monday, Nov. 16 at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled “When a child dies, faith is no defense. Why do courts give believers a pass?”

    “Submit your questions and comments before or during today’s discussion.”


    As of 9:26 AM, there were 64 comments at the Washington Post website, with more coming in all the time:


  12. Mespo,

    Are the cases really that hard when you remove the soft focus of emotion?

    I guess you are correct in this regards. However, where is the line draws, such as the gentleman in the above matter where he was convicted of possession of a firearm. Strict Liability. The rights are slowly obstructed and then you have none. My simple example is the seat-belt law. Now even adult passengers in the back seat are required to wear a seat belt. Public safety? I think not. Where is the seat belt on a bus, commercial or school? A motorcycle? What about MADD and drunk driving. Did this not become a champion for the courts to raise revenue. I agree that driving drunk is a bad ideal but come on. Statistics show a hung over driver is worse than a slightly impaired one. What about use of Marijuana 23 days before. THC stays in the system and the can be charged and convicted of Driving Under the Influence of Illegal Narcotics. Is this not a stretch?

  13. AY:

    When we give deference to foolish ideas, should we expect anything less than foolish (and sometimes tragic) consequences? It may be presumptuous or even arrogant to judge another’s beliefs, but experience teaches us to do it every day. Would you board a bus if the driver greeted you with,”Today, I am going to heaven, as the Apocalypse is upon us.” Ride on, oh whack job would most certainly be your conclusion. Arrogant and presumptuous maybe, but infinitely reasonable. It is the duty of the law to remain reason-based, and not serve as a bastion of ignorance, emotion, and superstition that kills the innocent under the banner of individual rights. Are the cases really that hard when you remove the soft focus of emotion?

  14. These are indeed hard cases to take, talk about and represent. What is the right thing to do? What is the balance of religious tolerance and interference? Who is to say what is right and what is wrong. When you start abridging one right, imposing your superior intellect on another when does this superiority stop until they become compliant?

    I surely don’t condone child abuse by any stretch of the imagination but should the parents, guardians, caregivers suffer such indignation of our imagination? These are clearly controversial cases that should make someone take a double take.

    Are we not utilizing “religious freedoms” as our excuses to invade many country’s? The Kurds case in point. Or were they a convient justification for interference?

    When you think about these things, there are no easy decisions. If you live by the bible you should hasten your judgment for anyone. Is this not what we have been taught? Or do we selectively pick and choose what we believe?

    You either have to take it all or leave it all behind you. As Mike S., has said on another post. Each person has to decide what is right for them. The Rabbi is just a communicator of ideals. Maybe I am taking what he said out of context but I think this is what was meant. If I am wrong I will certainly say so.

    The are hard cases making decisions hard, at least for me.

  15. Excellent work, but I think we dance around the real problem. The issue here is the institutional ignorance of some religions in denying the obvious progress of science. In their zeal to impose a First Century belief system on us all, they piously observe absurdities which put their own children at risk. The law has not countenanced or excused the evil, overbearing, and even the merely cantankerous. The real question is: Must the law countenance or excuse fools?

    Suffer the little children, indeed.

Comments are closed.