Manslaughter Convictions for Parents Who Relied on Prayer to Heal Child

Parents may not endanger their children to follow religious beliefs.

Church Law and Tax 1992-05-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

A Washington state appeals court upheld the first degree manslaughter conviction of a parent who unsuccessfully relied on prayer for the healing of his minor child. The victim’s parents were members of a religious group known as the “No Name Fellowship.” Members were encouraged to use spanking as a means of “getting right with God.” All physical illnesses were thought to be caused by sin. Members were taught that the medical establishment was “wicked” and that members should rely exclusively upon prayer for healing the sick. A 10-year-old boy whose parents were members of the group began losing weight and exhibiting other abnormal symptoms. A church “elder” determined that the boy’s illness was a result of sin, and he ordered the boy to be severely spanked. Following an hour-long session of “ministering” (which consisted of intense interrogation and spanking), the boy’s condition continued to worsen. The father continued slapping and spanking the child, and consulting with the elder for guidance. The elder assured the father that the boy would be alright. The boy died the next morning. He was completely emaciated and weighed only 46 pounds. It was determined that he died of untreated juvenile diabetes that had been aggravated by his frequent beatings. The boy’s father was prosecuted, and convicted, of first degree manslaughter. The father appealed, claiming that his conviction violated his constitutional right to religious freedom. A state appeals court rejected the father’s claim, and upheld his conviction. The court observed: “[The father] was free under the Washington State Constitution to believe [his son] could be healed through prayer. He was not free to act o that belief in a manner jeopardizing the health of his child. We find no constitutional violation.” The court quoted with approval from a 1944 decision of the United States Supreme Court: “The right to practice religion does not include liberty to expose the child to ill health or death …. Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow that they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.” State v. Norman, 808 P.2d 1159 (Wash. App. 1991).

See Also: Use of Public Property for Religious Purposes

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