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Prayer vs medical help

Parents withholding medical treatment
from their children; legal exemptions.

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bullet "The free exercise clause of the First Amendment protects religious belief, but not necessarily conduct." Judge Vincent Howard, Marathon County Circuit Court, Wisconsin. 1

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Freedom to choose faith healing:

People in North America are guaranteed freedom of religion.:

bullet The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits any action by an American government which restricts "the free exercise of religion."
bullet Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that "Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: freedom of conscience and religion.."

Courts have generally interpreted the concept of freedom of religion very broadly to include both religious belief and most religious practices. e.g. the personal freedom to choose prayer and/or religious ritual in place of medical treatment for a disease or disorder. When faced with a medical problem, an adult can seek medical attention, use faith healing, try herbal or other alternative medical treatment, or pursue no treatment at all, and let nature takes its course. Some parents or guardians may wish to exercise the same options for their children. The result is sometimes a conflict with civil authorities: should parents have the right to follow their religion and withhold medical attention from their children, even if the child will probably die needlessly? The problem is aggravated by the teachings of some faith groups which create a culture in which seeking medical health is viewed as rejecting God.

Problems sometimes occur in cases involving a minor or other person who is incapable of giving informed consent for their own treatment. Parents and guardians are generally given almost complete freedom in providing or denying health care to their children. But, in the case of life-threatening medical conditions, the courts and Child Protective Services have occasionally intruded, and ordered treatment of a child against the wishes of its parent(s).

J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions in Santa Barbara, CA has stated that at the start of the 20th century, there were many faith groups that advocated prayer in the place of medicine. Their teaching was largely motivated by a backlash directed against the inroads of modern medicine. The number of groups that still advocate prayer has been dropping ever since. 2

Dr. Seth Asser, co-author of an article on medically preventable child fatalities commented:

"You can't beat, sexually abuse or starve your kids, but the law allows a parent to refuse medical care in favor of magic. This is not just a social phenomenon, but a public-health issue." 3

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Why do parents choose prayer in place of medical attention?

Thousands of children die every year in America as a result of neglect or abuse. Often abuse is the result of spanking or other forms of corporal punishment that simply got out of hand. However, this essay deals with a different phenomenon: a sick child who is denied medical attention -- often for an easily treated problem -- because of the parents' reliance on prayer. On the order of one child a month in the U.S. is known to die as a result of a disease or disorder that is almost certainly curable with medical attention. The full number is unknown.

The root cause of the problem is the parents' concept of truth. In the case of Christians, truth is typically based on four considerations:

  1. What the Bible says and means, according to their faith group's interpretation.
  2. Their faith group's traditional beliefs.
  3. Personal experience.
  4. Scientific findings.

Among many fundamentalists, Pentecostals, evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious conservatives, as well as Christian Scientists, the first two criteria vastly outweigh the fourth in importance. Some parents are willing to ignore medical and other scientific knowledge and make decisions largely or solely on their religious beliefs.

A major factor is not necessarily what the Bible says, or even what it meant at the time. It is what the Bible means today.

Two examples are:

bullet Jehovah's Witnesses are taught that the dietary rules in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) requiring that blood be fully drained from meat before it is eaten are literally true. Hebrews are forbidden to eat meat containing blood. The Witnesses interpret these passages as being still binding on modern-day Christians. They also teach that these passages prohibit a member from accepting a blood transfusion, even if it is necessary to save their life. Few other Christian denominations teach either of these beliefs.
bullet "Pastor Bob" is reported as having once written in the Unleavened Bread Ministries web site: "Jesus never sent anyone to a doctor or a hospital. Jesus offered healing by one means only! Healing was by faith." 1 The New Testament does not recommend that people seek medical attention for themselves or their family. It does talk about medical cures through prayer, sometimes involving the elders in the church and anointing with oil. That might have been a useful teaching in the first century CE Galilee, because there were no hospitals available and medical knowledge was so primitive that going to the doctor, on average, endangered your health more than just letting nature take its course. It was only in the early 20th century that medical techniques improved to the point where physician care was beneficial, on average. To some deeply devout parents, the 1st century approach is still the path to take.

Here again, the question is not what the Bible passages say, or even what they meant at the time. It is whether they still have the same meaning today. Some small faith groups teach that because hospitals and modern medicine are not mentioned in the Bible, that modern-day Christians must not take advantage of them today. Prayer, anointing, and the laying on of hands are the only acceptable treatment. With the exception of the U.S., hospital and physician care is now universally accessible throughout the developed world. Most Christian denominations urge their members to take advantage of medical help. A few small faith groups teach that the Bible requires their members to avoid doctors and hospitals.

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Religious exemptions in child abuse laws:

In 1974, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare first required states to have clauses in their child abuse and neglect legislation that permits exemptions from prosecution of parents on religious grounds. If a state refused, they would not receive federal child abuse protection grants.

In 1983, the federal government allowed states to repeal these clauses. However, most state still allow parents to use a religious defense if their child dies because prayer was used instead of medical treatment.

Some recent activity at the state level:

bullet 1994 Oregon: Legislature committees heard testimony on two House bills that would require all parents to obtain medical help for their seriously sick or injured children. The bills had strong backing from both major parties, law enforcement, physicians, social workers and child advocates. "...there was limited testimony from Christian Scientists who warned that eliminating the so-called spiritual defense from Oregon's homicide statutes and other areas of the law would unfairly impose upon their religious rights." 4  The House later endorsed a compromise faith healing bill that allows defendants to claim faith healing as a defense.

bullet 1994 Minnesota: The state passed a law which requires parents or guardians to alert child protection services if they have withheld medical treatment and that their children were endangered by their decision. Few if any parents or guardians report under this law.

bullet 1998 Texas: Critical-care pediatrician Seth Asser said:

"Kids die from accidental deployment of air bags, and you get hearings in Congress. But this goes on, and dozens die and people think there's no problem because the deaths happen one at a time. But the kids who die suffer horribly. This is Jonestown in slow motion."

The American Medical Association, the National District Attorneys Association, the Academy of American Pediatrics and a growing number of local and state legislators agree with him.

bullet 2001: The Academy of American Pediatrics went on record in opposition to these exemption laws. 5

Colorado as well as Oregon had experienced an increase in juvenile death rates that paralleled the growth of anti-medical faith groups. 5  Amanda Bates, 13, suffered a horrendous, lingering and painful death from diabetes and gangrene in early 2001. She and her family attended the General Assembly and Church of the First Born. She was the third child to die in that church in three years. This motivated legislators to eliminate an exemption from the child abuse law that had  protected parents from abuse charges if they withheld medical attention from children.
bullet 2002: 38 states had laws that shield parents from persecution if they reject medical treatment for their children in favor of faith healing. However, most of these state laws specify that if a child's condition is life-threatening, then a physician must be consulted. 6

bullet 2009: Rita Swan is the executive director of the Iowa based Childrenā€™s Health Care Is a Legal Duty. They advocate charging parents who do not seek medical help when their children need it. She reports that about 300 children have died in the United States during the previous 25 years after medical care was withheld on religious grounds.

Child abuse laws in 30 states still provide some form of protection for practitioners of faith healing in cases of child neglect and other matters. 1

Some state laws exempt parents only if their children are faced with a non-life threatening condition or disease. The Oregon law covering criminally negligent homicide requires that the prosecution prove that the defendant failed to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that is "a gross deviation" from what a reasonable person would observe in a similar situation. 7 Both are difficult to prove in court. Parents can claim that they did not realize that their child's condition was very serious; they can claim lack of medical knowledge. A British law requires parents to seek medical help for their children, if the child's condition does not improve after 72 hours of non-medical treatment. That type of legislation may be more effective.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Dirk Johnson, "Trials for Parents Who Chose Faith Over Medicine,"  New York Times, 2009-JAN-20, at:
  2. "State, church clash over faith healing beliefs," Beloit Daily News, Beloit WI, 1997-APR-21 at:
  3. S.M. Asser & R. Swan, "Child fatalities from religion-motivated medical neglect,"  Pediatrics, 1998; 101(4), Pages 625-629
  4. Home in Zion Ministries has a home page at:
  5. Jessica Reaves, "Freedom of Religion or State-Sanctioned Child Abuse? Rising death toll fuels debate over parents who choose prayer over medical treatment on behalf of their children,", 2001-FEB-21, at:
  6. "No Cure for Cancer: Tenn. Mom, Preacher Accused of Letting Girl Die by Turning to God,", 2002-OCT-3, at:
  7. Steven Mayes, "Fate of Oregon City faith healers now with jury," Oregon Live, 2009-JAN-29, at:

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Site navigation: Home page > "Hot" religious topics > Faith healing > here

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Copyright © 1996 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1996-JAN-14
Latest update: 2010-FEB-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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