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Maryland Criminal Defense Attorney on Prayer Versus Medicine

Criminal lawyer Seth Okin discusses religion versus medicine

Feb. 25, 2014

The fight for religious freedom may conjure up images of opposing groups waging war for the right to practice religion autonomously. But what happens when the fight for religious freedom emerges, not as a battle of armed confrontation, but as a squaring off of conflicting political positions—both of which claim to esteem child welfare as its highest regard? In cases where religious freedom is in direct opposition to child safety, a complex dichotomy exists that challenges civil libertarians and lawmakers alike. Several recent cases have become prominent news here in the U.S., and most recently in Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love.”

So what does love look like when your child is critically ill and medical treatment is required to save his life? For most of us, the answer is obvious. For parents like Herbert and Catherine Schaible lovingly caring for their sick seven-month-old son Brandon necessitated prayer and prayer alone. Their joint invocations were insufficient to save the life of the gravely ill infant, who died last April after suffering several days with pneumonia and severe diarrhea. Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore described the child’s passing as a “slow, painful, horrible death.” The Schaibles were subsequently charged and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to three-and-a-half years to seven years in prison—a sentence critics found far too lenient for the gravity of the crime.

Given that Brandon was the couple’s second child to die under similarly preventable circumstances, Judge Benjamin Lerner was understandably incensed by their decision to forgo lifesaving medical care. He sentenced the Schaibles to complete the remainder of their sentence from their first conviction in the death of their two-year-old son Kent, who died in 2009 from bacterial pneumonia. The Schaibles, however, have steadfastly denounced allegations that their youngest son died as a result of their religious beliefs, and argued ignorance of the severity of his condition. The court disagreed, and deemed the Schaibles’ commitment to tenants of the First Century Gospel Church as a primary influence in the decisions that led to the deaths of both boys. The couple’s remaining seven children range in age from 4 to 18 and all but the eldest were ordered to be removed from the parents’ custody by the Philadelphia Department of Human Services.

Political correctness, arising from decades of controversy in the church versus state religious debate, puts lawmakers and child safety advocates at direct odds with churches and parents who value religious doctrine over medical science. Varying degrees of faith healing, which rely on supernatural intervention to restore health, have long been associated with various religious groups such as Pentecostalists, the Church of the First Born, the Followers of Christ, and many smaller religious sects. Christian Science, arguably the most well known of the faith-healing sects, teaches illness is an illusion caused by a flawed belief system which can be rectified with a shift in spiritual awareness and mental concentration, all fortified by prayer. (Though the Christian Scientist Church strongly promotes faith-based healing, it is quick to state that it does not officially preclude members from seeking medical care, and has distanced itself from religious organizations that have adopted strict bans on medical intervention.)

Opponents of faith healing concede that competent adults should remain free to reject medical intervention; however, this freedom should not extended to their defenseless children. Under this point of view, the government is warranted in instituting and enforcing laws to protect minors where faith healing is revered. Nonetheless, the Christian Science Church continues to aggressively lobby for immunity under religious shield laws pertaining to child abuse and neglect, citing infringement on the religious freedom of its parishioners as basis for exemption.

According to the National District Attorneys Association, 37 states, Guam, and the District of Columbia have some form of religious exemptions for parents who subscribe to faith-based healing, with Arkansas and West Virginia having the broadest protection. But several other states have already repealed such laws, including Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Hawaii. Idaho, Wisconsin, and Washington state are considering similar action. Additionally, several medical and legal organizations have joined forces to end nationwide religious exemptions from child health and safety laws, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Association of Medical Examiners, American Medical Association, and other prominent child welfare organizations. Still, according to Rita Swan, PhD, co-founder of Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc.(CHILD), far more needs to be done to repeal all existing legislation to avoid atrocities such as the one that befell Brandon Schaible.

The idiom “adding insult to injury” feebly describes comments made by the Schaibles’ pastor in regards to the double tragedies. Rather than commending the devout couple’s unwavering faith, the pastor cited the cause of deaths as “spiritual lack” on the parents’ part. The contemptuous remark from the church leader seems especially insensitive at a time when the Schaibles are likely reeling in the aftermath of another devastating blow. If losing one child to illness isn’t sobering enough, certainly losing two—under the influence of a questionable spiritual philosophy—must be excruciatingly punishing. However, sympathy for well-meaning, misguided parents wanes in the balance of protecting endangered children exposed to what many deem as religiously-endorsed child abuse.

Though accurate statistical data on failed faith healing is hard to find, primarily due to religious shield laws, experts estimate at least 12 children die each year in the United States from injuries and illnesses. It is also estimated that these children would have normally had a strong prognosis for recovery had they received basic medical treatment.

While some people may opt for spiritual or alternative care over traditional medicine, complete disregard for all forms of medical science can be enormously risky, as proven in the Schailbles’ tragic case. Allowing treatable conditions to fester because of religious doctrine has long drawn the ire of the public at large. Increasingly, however, the legal consequences for such actions have become equally harsh. Though the debate on whether an adult can choose to forgo medical treatment is one worth having, most of us can agree that debate should be limited and protections from medical neglect should be strong when the health of helpless children is involved.

Seth Okin is a criminal defense attorney in Maryland with extensive experience defending clients for a variety of offenses. He is also certified in the concentration of family law, both in general mediation and child access mediation. His work in family law has seen him take on many pro bono cases, most often dealing with protective order and protective custody cases where the health and happiness of the children involved are his utmost concern. For more information on his work, please contact his Maryland law office here.