Back in 2002, one Jacqueline Crank was sentenced to unsupervised probation for negligence in the death of her fifteen-year-old daughter Jessica from Ewing's sarcoma. Jessica was not brought in for conventional medical treatment, but instead was subjected to a bout of "faith healing" on the part of the girl's "spiritual father," Ariel Sherman, and various family friends.
"Laying on of hands" in a Pentecostal Church [image courtesy of photographer Russell Lee and the Wikimedia Commons]
Her last appeal, in which her sentence was upheld, was decided in June of 2013. In the decision, the following provision of the Spiritual Treatment Exemption Act was quoted:
Nothing in this chapter [Tennessee Code Annotated Title 39, Chapter 15, setting forth certain offenses against children, including child abuse and neglect] shall be construed to mean a child is neglected, abused, or abused or neglected in an aggravated manner for the sole reason the child is being provided treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone in accordance with the tenets or practices of a recognized church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner thereof in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.I have two issues with this.
First, how is denying a child medical treatment ever anything other than child abuse? Allowing a child to remain in pain, or perhaps even to die, of a treatable illness is "abuse and neglect" no matter whether the reason is negligence or "deeply held religious beliefs." You can't "provide treatment by spiritual means," because it doesn't work. The list of children who have died in the hands of faith healers -- some from agonizing conditions like appendicitis -- is long.
Second, how do you become a "duly accredited practitioner" of faith healing? Cf. my earlier comment about the fact that it doesn't work. I suppose, of course, that there are also training programs for astrology, crystal energy healing, and homeopathy, so having a certificate in Latin on your wall saying you're an accredited faith healer isn't that much more ridiculous.
The problem is, of course, that this puts the Tennessee Supreme Court in the awkward position of either having to admit that the basis of their Spiritual Treatment Exemption Act is a flawed belief that systematizes child abuse, or siding with a woman who while her child was experiencing bone disintegration from a grapefruit-sized tumor, "decided to turn to Jesus Christ, my Lord and my Savior, my Healer, Defender for her healing. That being a believer in the Lord, being a believer in this Word, that He was the only Healer. And through that belief we took it in our hands to pray for her, to heal her with prayer, to know that Jesus Christ is the Healer, is the Deliverer."
So the decision will either imply that all religious beliefs are equal, even the loony ones, or that some beliefs are more equal than others. And either way, the justices on the Tennessee Supreme Court will have painted themselves into a legal corner that it's hard to see an escape from.