I last addressed the subject of religious exemptions for faith based healing in state law way back in November, but today the controversy is still going strong. Two bills, one in the Senate and one in the Legislature, seek to address the topic. Both remove the current religious exemption in Wisconsin's child abuse and neglect laws, but from there on out it's nothing but disagreement-some of it intensely heated.
Rep. Terese Berceau yesterday called an informational hearing of the Assembly Committee on Children and Families for her bill, AB590. On an unseasonably beautiful March afternoon, I pedaled my butt up to the capitol and spent a few hours sitting in on the meeting, because I'm dedicated like that.
I'll tell you right now that I came out of it still convinced that Berceau's bill is the way to go. It makes a clean cut, unlike its rival in the Senate which actually adds religious exemptions in more expansive sections of state statutes. Still, it was fascinating to hear the testimony given by Joe Farkas, the only opponent of AB590 invited to speak at this particular meeting. Farkas is the media and legislative liaison for the Christian Science Community in Wisconsin and a long time practitioner of the faith.
After Berceau explained her motivations for helping draft the bill, Farkas sat in the hot seat to give his reasons for opposing it and supporting Sen. Lena Taylor's alternative bill (SB384) instead. The given reasons for his position mostly involved a fear that the law would prevent Christian Science parents from teaching their children about the faith and might lead to discrimination against those who choose to use prayer as a means of treating illnesses.
Farkas was quick and constant in pointing out that Christian Scientists "do not feel it's the will of God for children to suffer or die. The Church does not dictate the individual choices of members or tell them they can't go to see a doctor." This was in direct response to the case of Kara Neumann, whose parents prayed over her while she went into a coma and eventually died of an entirely treatable form of diabetes. The Neumann's were not Christian Scientists, and the Church has gone to great lengths to separate itself from them and their actions. The Neumann's used the current state religious exemption as part of their defense in court but eventually both were charged with second-degree murder (though the appeals process is likely to be a lengthy one).
Why then, if what Farkas insisted on is true, would he and others like him so ardently oppose a bill that would simply hold accountable those parents who relied solely (and "solely" is the operative word here) on prayer even when their child was in mortal danger?
Both Berceau and later speaker Rita Swan (executive director of Iowa-based Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty) called Farkas out on his repeated assertions that practitioners were freely allowed to seek medical help in dire cases. Swan is a former Church member whose son died from a treatable illness after prayer practitioners and Church "nurses" advised her that the disease "wasn't real" and that only prayer could save him.
They also brought up the point that Christian Science's prayer practitioners and nurses have no medical training ("Not even basic First Aid," noted Swan at one point), and parents are not given instruction in how to know when it might be time to seek the help of a doctor or hospital.
I don't believe that prayer can outright cure things like diabetes, cancer, or even the common cold. But I also don't believe the state has any right to tell an adult who is of sound mind and body what they can and cannot believe or practice. What I do believe, however, is that a parent or caretaker has no right to impose their beliefs on a child, especially in cases where the child's life is at stake.
Berceau's bill strikes that crucial balance, stating clearly that the rules apply only to children under 18 and have no bearing on how an adult chooses to treat their own illnesses.
Farkas and other opponents seem bent on distorting that language, though. When both Berceau and Rep. Christine Sinicki pointed to an article in which he was quoted as saying that the bill would take away a parent's right to pray over a child at all, Farkas attempted to distance himself from the statement, claiming that it "might be a mis-quote" and that he "couldn't recall" having said it (that particular phrase may not be the best way to endear yourself to the public these days).
Farkas also danced a bit when asked by Rep. Tamara Grigsby, the committee chair, how he reconciled the fact that AB590 enjoyed a laundry list of support from a broad coalition of children's rights and health groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, while the Senate version did not.
He also claimed that, "In last 20 years there has not been case of child dying that was involved in Christian Science." But Swan later rebuffed him, both with her own story and several other instances from around the country.
I don't doubt that most Christian Scientists, or indeed people in general who use prayer as a means of treatment, want only the best for their children. I believe their sincerity when they say they think they're doing what's best for themselves and their families. But sometimes belief can cloud better judgment and obscure reality, no matter how well-meaning it is. The fact remains that many children are dead from easily preventable illnesses and treatable injuries because their parents were determined to impose their own spiritual code on someone without the capacity to choose otherwise. That, frankly, is neglect and must be addressed (and hopefully prevented) as such.
Another aspect of this debate well worth a serious discussion-and it was brought up at Wednesday's meeting-is the fact that certain Christian Science "nursing" facilities (more like care homes, where no medical care is given, only basic comfort services) receive federal funding via Medicare. Those are public dollars going toward a religious organization that has no trained medical personnel on staff.
You can currently also write off payments made to Christian Science prayer practitioners, who are told by the religion's founding edicts to charge as much as traditional medical doctors for their care, when it comes to your federal taxes.
This is not a non-profit you're giving your money to; practitioners simply pray over your problem and then send you a straight-up bill for the service. That's their prerogative, of course, and that of the people who hire them. But I don't understand how any of it qualifies for public, government money.
Like Swan pointed out in her own testimony, "Medical care is certainly not perfect, but it is a state licensed system with responsibilities and regulations and oversight…but there is no way for the state to set quality standards for faith healers."
Simply put, this new law would make it clear that there is no excuse for neglecting or abusing a child. In the case of faith healing, neglect/abuse would be defined as relying only on prayer to treat a severely ill child. It would in no way discriminate against those people who chose to pray over a problem, so long as they sought appropriate medical care if and when that problem became life threatening.
I don't see why that should be so controversial, except if you were utterly and completely convinced that just praying was doing everything in your power to help. And if that's the case, this disagreement may never be settled on a personal level. That shouldn't, however, prevent us from passing the bill and settling it on the legal level. Lives are on the line, after all.