Freedom of Relgion – Part 2

Church Law and Tax 1990-01-01 Recent Developments Freedom of Religion Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M.,

Church Law and Tax 1990-01-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

Can a civil court force a woman to receive a life-saving blood transfusion against her will and contrary to her religious beliefs? Yes, concluded the Florida Supreme Court. The woman entered a public hospital suffering from “dysfunctional uterine bleeding”, and was informed by doctors that she would die if she did not receive a blood transfusion. The woman, a practicing Jehovah’s Witness and mother of two minor children, refused the transfusion on the ground that it would violate her religious beliefs (she was competent at the time of her decision). The hospital asked a civil court to force the woman to undergo a blood transfusion. The court granted the hospital’s request and ordered the woman to undergo a transfusion (she was by then unconscious), on the ground that “minor children have a right to be reared by two loving parents, a right which overrides the mother’s right of free exercise [of religion] and privacy.” Upon regaining consciousness, the woman appealed the court’s order to a state appeals court, which ruled in favor of the woman. The hospital appealed the case to the state supreme court, which also ruled in favor of the woman. The court cited four factors to consider in deciding whether or not a patient’s constitutional right to religious freedom outweighs the state’s interest in requiring potentially life-saving medical treatment: “(1) preservation of life, (2) protection of innocent third parties, (3) prevention of suicide, and (4) maintenance of the ethical integrity of the medical profession.” The court disagreed with the hospital’s claim that the state’s interest in maintaining a home with two parents for minor children outweighed any constitutional right of the mother to terminate her life by refusing medical treatment. The court quoted with approval from the state appeals court ruling: “[This case involves] a delicate balancing analysis in which the courts weigh, on the one hand, the patient’s constitutional right of privacy and right to practice one’s religion, as against certain basic societal interests. Obviously, there are no preordained answers to such problematic questions and the results reached in these cases are highly debatable. Running through all of these decisions, however, is the courts’ deeply imbedded belief, rooted in our constitutional traditions, that an individual has a fundamental right to be left alone so that he is free to lead his private life according to his own beliefs free from unreasonable governmental interference. Surely nothing, in the last analysis, is more private or more sacred than one’s religion or view of life, and here the courts, quite properly, have given great deference to the individual’s right to make decisions vitally affecting his private life according to his own conscience. It is difficult to overstate this right because it is, without exaggeration, the very bedrock on which this country was founded.” Public Health Trust v. Wons, 541 So.2d 96 (Fla. 1989).

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