Criminal Liability for Reliance on Prayer to Cure a Child

The Colorado Supreme Court addressed this difficult question.

Church Law and Tax 1991-09-01 Recent Developments

Child Abuse and Molestation

The Colorado Supreme Court addressed the difficult question of the criminal liability of a parent who relies on prayer rather than medical technology for the cure of a sick child. A father (the “defendant”) lived with his wife and nine children in a small cabin in the mountains. For many years, the defendant had been on “a walk of faith,” which he described as a total reliance on God for all needs and for healing in times of illness or injury. He was a recognized minister in a small fundamentalist Christian organization, and conducted weekly services in his cabin. The tenets of the defendant’s church included healing of the sick by prayer, which was based on its interpretation of the Bible. One winter, the defendant’s infant daughter began exhibiting cold symptoms. Other members of the family had come down with similar symptoms earlier in the year, and defendant attributed their recovery to prayer. Accordingly, he was not particularly concerned about his baby’s condition. When the baby’s symptoms worsened, the defendant called two other church members to come to the cabin to pray for the child. The defendant, and these two other members, anointed the baby’s head with oil, laid their hands on her head, and prayed for her healing. By the following morning, the baby’s condition had worsened further. The defendant concluded that this was due to the wood burning stove drying the cabin air. To get the baby out of the dry cabin air, and to relieve the defendant’s wife who was exhausted from caring for the other eight children, the baby was taken to a neighbor’s home. The neighbor was a nurse, and she immediately suspected that the baby was suffering from pneumonia. She urged the defendant to take the baby to a hospital immediately. The defendant responded, “We can’t. This is our walk and this is our life.” The next day, the neighbor again urged the defendant to take the baby to a hospital. The defendant again declined, noting that the baby “looks 100 percent better.” Later that day, however, the baby began having difficulty breathing. The nurse became concerned that the baby was taking its last breaths. Shortly thereafter, the baby died. An autopsy revealed that the baby had died from respiratory failure due to “acute bronchial pneumonia.” The defendant was charged with child abuse resulting in death. At the trial, a physician testified that the baby would have survived had she been taken to the hospital. A jury found the defendant guilty as charged under a state law making it a felony to cause the death of a child through reckless conduct or criminal negligence. The defendant appealed his conviction, claiming that state law contained an exception to criminal child abuse in the case of “treatment by spiritual means.”

On appeal, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed the defendant’s conviction on the basis of a technicality (the trial judge had required the defendant to prove the availability of the spiritual treatment defense rather than requiring the prosecutor to prove that it was not available). The court ordered a new trial. In part because of this case, the Colorado state legislature has amended its child abuse law to restrict, and in some cases eliminate, the availability of the “spiritual treatment” defense if a child’s life is threatened.

This case is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it demonstrates that church members and clergy assume a legal risk in relying entirely on prayer for the cure of a seriously ill child. Of course, the court did not discourage the use of prayer. Rather, it said that prayer must be accompanied by appropriate medical assistance in the case of life-threatening conditions. In fact, the court acknowledged that parents can rely solely on prayer so long for illnesses and conditions that are not life-threatening. Second, the court rejected the view that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom permits a parent to treat a seriously ill child solely through prayer. It observed that “while the state bears a heavy burden to justify any infringement on a person’s right to freely practice religious beliefs, the family itself is not beyond regulation in the public interest as against a claim of religious liberty and, therefore, the right to practice religion freely does not include the right or liberty to expose the child to ill health or death.” Lybarger v. People, 807 P.2d 570 (Colo. 1991).

The Right to Refuse Medical Treatment

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