Religion, Death, and the Law
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 23, Number 3.
There are American states in which Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian
Scientists who kill their children by denying them lifesaving blood
transfusions or other medical procedures can escape the consequences of
their crime by pleading "freedom of religion." Currently,
thirty-nine states' civil codes include religious exemptions from child
abuse or neglect charges, while thirty-one allow a religious defense to a
criminal charge.1 In a study of 172 child
deaths where medical treatment was withheld on religious grounds, it was
found that 140 children would have had at least a 90 percent likelihood of
survival with medical care.2
The 1996 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."3 A senator from
Indiana and a congressman from Pennsylvania, both Republicans (so what
else is new?), have actually argued that parents have a First Amendment
right to withhold medical care from their children.4
Even in those states where homicidal child neglect is prosecuted,
defendants are allowed to offer the jury a defense based on sectarian
beliefs not held by other religions. Why?
The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting
an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise
thereof." Under that amendment, any law, court ruling, or jury
verdict that denies adherents of a minority religion or belief system the
rights granted to practitioners of all other belief systems would be
unconstitutional. Christians are permitted to swear oaths on the sacred
book of their choice; therefore Jews and Muslims must be permitted to
swear oaths on the sacred books of their choice, and nontheists permitted
to "affirm" rather than "swear" under the same penalty
But just as the First Amendment prohibits denying to adherents of
designated religions rights granted to all others, so does it prohibit
granting to designated religions rights not enjoyed by all others. Laws
criminalizing homicide by neglect are applicable to the whole population.
They are not laws respecting an establishment of religion. Since killing
children by substituting prayer for necessary medical procedures is a
criminal offense for Catholics, that makes it a criminal offense for
Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses as well. Any law giving those
religions the right to withhold lifesaving procedures from children is
therefore unconstitutional. Neither Congress nor a court can make such a
Even in parts of the world that have no equivalent of America's First
Amendment, nobody has ever suggested that Thuggs and Assassins, whose
religions demand that they ritually sacrifice outsiders, should be able to
violate laws prohibiting homicide by pleading "freedom of
religion." Why should America, which does prohibit special rights to
religion, be less strict? Freedom of religion does not include the freedom
to kill. And what of the religions that are trying to force whole
populations that disagree with them to grant a "right to life"
to prehuman tadpoles with zero brainwave activity indicative of human
thought? Are they screaming with outrage and demanding the same
"right to life" for children whose parents choose to let them
die? Their silence is deafening.
1. Iowa and Ohio allow a religious defense for
manslaughter. Delaware and West Virginia allow a religious defense for the
murder of a child. Arkansas allows a religious defense for capital murder.
Oregon allows a religious defense for homicide by abuse. States with a
religious defense for child endangerment, criminal abuse or neglect, and
cruelty to children include Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana,
Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New
Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina,
Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Since
1990, some similar laws have been repealed in Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii,
Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, and South
2. Pediatrics, 101 (April 1998): 625-29.
3. Sec. 113, Rule of Construction.
4. For additional information see www.childrenshealthcare.org
William Harwood is the editor/translator of The
Judaeo-Christian Bible Fully Translated (Booksurge.com) and the author
of several novels including Uncle Yeshu, Messiah, and The
Autobiography of God (Xlibris.com).