Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Trials of faith

The state of Tennessee is in a bit of a quandary at the moment.

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]

Despite the light sentence, Crank hasn't been willing to let the matter go, and has pursued appeals all the way up to the Tennessee Supreme Court.  And the sticky part of the issue is that Tennessee has something called the Spiritual Treatment Exemption Act, which allows parents to avoid medical treatment for their children if it would interfere with their religious beliefs.  Crank's claim -- and it's hard to see how she's wrong -- is that this protects certain established religious sects who don't believe in using modern medicine (e.g. Christian Scientists) but it didn't protect her, because she belongs to a sect that includes only her and about two dozen others, living "in a cult-type religious environment with many people... all of whom they consider 'family' although none of them are related."

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.


  1. Maybe they should tell Crank to sue Sherman (and his God?) for malpractice instead...

  2. I would _hope_ that the court would instead declare the law an unconstitutional violation of children's civil rights, but this is Tennessee, so in fact they probably will have no problem saying some religions are more equal than others.