We have two pieces of good news today from the American South—both from Tennessee. One refers to the subject of reports in The Tennesseean and the Knoxville News Sentinel: the Tennessee legislature has repealed a state law that gives parents exemptions from hurting their children by withholding medical care in favor of faith healing. As do many states, Tennessee has such an exemption on the books, though it’s a felony crime to hurt your kids if you don’t have a religious motivation. As The Tennessean reported previously,
It is a crime in Tennessee to fail to provide medical care to children, with an exception, known as the Spiritual Treatment Exemption Act, for parents who want to rely on “spiritual means through prayer alone,” according to state code. State Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, filed SB 1761 to repeal the exception.
The current code reads: “Nothing in this part shall be construed to mean a child is abused, neglected, or endangered, or abused, neglected or endangered in an aggravated manner, for the sole reason the child is being provided treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone, in accordance with the tenets or practices of a recognized church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner of the recognized church or religious denomination, in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.”
The bill applies to treatments and does not apply to vaccinations, although that may come up in the course of debate, Briggs said.
A Republican! How unexpected!
These laws are not uncommon. They were originally put in place by the states in 1974 as a result of a new federal policy mandating that states would not receive government money to prevent child abuse unless they also enacted laws allowing these religious exemptions. That was unconscionable and, in fact, the requirement was rescinded in 1983. But in many states the laws remained on the books. As a result, many children died, and still die, from religiously-based medical neglect; and their parents are either let off the hook or given only a slap on the wrist. As always, as with vaccination—47 of the 50 states allow religious exemption from getting children vaccinated before attending public school—religion gets an exemption that endangers people’s lives.
The exemption laws were buttressed in 1983. As the estimable organization Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty (CHILD) notes,
In 1996, however, Congress enacted a law stating that the 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.” [42 USC 5106i] Furthermore, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, and Congressman Bill Goodling, R-Pennsylvania, claimed during floor discussion that parents have a First Amendment right to withhold medical care from children.
Unbelievable! And Bill Clinton signed that law! But the results stand: in most places if you injure or kill your child because you deem conventional medical care contrary to your religion, you don’t get punished. As I noted in my Slate piece a year ago, “Faith healing kills children,”
Forty-eight states—all except West Virginia and Mississippi—allow religious exemptions from vaccination. (California would be the third exception if its bill becomes law.) A similar deference to religion applies to all medical care for children. As the National District Attorneys Association reports [JAC: link no longer works, and I can’t find the document, so go here], 43 states give some kind of criminal or civil immunity to parents who injure their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds.
Well, make that 42 now, for six days ago the Tennessee House concurred with the state Senate in repealing the noxious Spiritual Treatment Exemption Act. As the News Sentinel reports:
The repeal bill, Senate Bill 1761, is sponsored by Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, a cardiac surgeon, and Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, a lawyer. It won unanimous Senate approval in March and an 85-1 vote Thursday in the House and now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam, who’s expected to sign it into law.
. . . Briggs and Farmer introduced the bill this year in an attempt to repeal the exemption. Briggs cited his experience with a similar case years ago, when he was a general surgeon in another state and a teen boy was brought to see him with a ruptured appendix. His parents initially opposed surgery on religious grounds but later agreed to treatment.
The bill was backed by a Kentucky-based group, Children’s Healthcare Is Legal Duty (CHILD), that works for repeal of similar spiritual treatment exemptions across the country. Its President Rita Swan issued a statement thanking lawmakers for repealing the exemption in Tennessee.
Rita Swan is a hero, and has been recognized as such by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (they also filed a brief in the Tennessee case), which gave Swan its Lifetime Achievement Award. Swan and her husband, once Christian Scientists, let their son Matthew die of meningitis in 1977 because they were obeying the no-doctors tenet of their faith. Since then, Swan, horrified at what she did, founded CHILD and has worked tirelessly to get these religious laws overturned. But progress is slow.
I’m hoping now that a Southern state has removed its medical-exemption laws (or will when the governor signs the bill, as he surely will), other states will follow suit. It’s absolutely unbelievable that over 80% of American states allow parents to injure their children—children too young to enact their own decisions—by favoring religious healing over treatment that works. To me, this is one of the most noxious and injurious results of America’s privileging of religion. It kills people! Can any person, even a Regressive liberal, be in favor of those laws?
If you’re an American, it’s likely that your state has such exemptions (see the CHILD list to check). Do what you can to repeal them, and, if you can, donate money to CHILD, which is fighting the good fight.
And now—on to vaccination.!
Here are the states with religious exemptions (from CHILD); click to enlarge: