ANNAPOLIS – Parents who substitute prayer for medical treatment for their children may be subject to civil and criminal penalties under a bill repealing the religious exemption from child health and safety laws.
“Because children have died needless and painful deaths, and many other children have become permanently disabled as a direct result of religious exemption provisions in child abuse and neglect laws, we urge the committee to sustain the recommendation,” said Ellen Mugmon, State Council on Child Abuse and Neglect legislative chairwoman.
Removing the exemption has held up approval for the proposed “Juvenile Causes” bill, which deals with many child welfare issues. Last year, the bill made it out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee but died in the House.
Religious exemptions grant immunity from civil and criminal penalties to parents who practice faith-based healing in lieu of medical treatment.
“It’s in the best interest of the child,” said Gloria Goldfaden, executive director for Prevent Child Abuse Maryland. “If it is clear that the child needs medical attention, then for the interest of that child, the productivity of our society and the future of the next generation, we need to consider their health and welfare.”
More than 81 percent of children who died because their parents didn’t seek medical care for religious reasons would have had more than a 90 percent chance of survival, according to a study published in the April 1998 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, and Children’s Healthcare Is A Legal Duty reviewed reports of 175 child fatalities in faith- healing sects between 1975 and 1995. They found a case where a 2-year-old child choked on a bite of banana and showed signs of life for almost an hour while her parents’ only response was to call members of their religious circle to pray.
In another example, a Colorado couple faced criminal charges when their 13-year-old daughter died from complications of diabetes. The couple was a member of the General Assembly Church of the First Born, a religious sect that favors spiritual prayer over medical treatment.
In Maryland, members of the Christian Science Church told the panel their healing method has been effective enough for families to rely on it alone. In the last 125 years, more than 60,000 incidences spiritual healing have occurred through prayer alone, said Dale Burman of the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Maryland.
“In Maryland, we know of no deaths in recent decades of children under Christian Science treatment,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of successes as well as a few deaths. If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t stay with it.”
A proposed amendment by the religious sect “makes it clear” that the General Assembly does not intend for officials to intervene for the primary reason that the child is receiving non-medical remedial treatment and not medical care.
The amendment also says officials may intercede when they conclude a child may need medical treatment immediately.
“We need to prevent every tragedy of a child dying that we can,” said Burman. “No church doctrine or pressure prevents parents from choosing for their children any form of treatment they deem best under the circumstances, but Christian Science parents normally choose spiritual healing.” In 1974, the Christian Science Church lobbied for and the federal government passed a bill requiring states to pass religious exemptions from child abuse and neglect charges. It was rescinded in 1983, but states were slow to respond. Maryland statutes contained a religious exemption in family law until 1994, when it was rescinded. Since then, Maryland’s General Assembly has rejected attempts to reinstate it. However, a religious exemption remains in another part of the code called the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article. Forty-one states have religious exemptions from child abuse and neglect charges. The American Academy of Pediatrics, Advocates for Children and Youth and the Coalition to Protect Maryland’s Children support repealing the religious exemption. “We think that spiritual healing and prayer are an important part of life, but a child should not be denied medical care,” said Bobbi Seabolt, a lobbyist for the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “The Academy strongly supports prayer, but it’s not the only thing that provides healing.” -30- CNS-2-21-01