Christian Scientists and several other religious groups rely on prayer instead of medicine to treat illnesses. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, so anybody able to give his or her own consent may refuse medical treatment.
When parents make this decision for children, however, it raises questions about whether this is protected under the constitution. Normally, refusing medical care for a child would be neglect under child abuse laws, but most states create exemptions on religious grounds. At the same time, in most of these states a physician must be consulted if the condition is life threatening. Also, several states have begun to repeal these laws entirely.
What Happens if a Child Dies Without Medical Care?
Parents may be found criminally liable for manslaughter or criminal homicide if their child dies of a medically treatable condition. Most states have determined that religious exemptions for child abuse laws do not apply in these cases and the parents cannot be charged with manslaughter or child neglect.
Where parents are divorced and disagree on religion, the Christian Scientist parent may be civilly liable to the other for failing to give medical care. All states have laws barring child abuse and neglect. However, in 34 states (as well as the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico), there are exemptions in the civil child abuse statutes when medical treatment for a child conflicts with the religious beliefs of parents.
What is Freedom of Religion?
Another significant right protected by the First Amendment is the right to freedom of religious choice. The First Amendment explicitly prohibits the establishment of a government religion, such as a state church. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, so anybody able to give his or her own consent may refuse medical treatment or do the medical treatment that they prefer on their children.
Does the Christian Scientist Church Have Any Liability?
Most courts have refused to find the church either criminally or civilly liable for any misconduct since the church has a constitutional right to follow and teach their religious beliefs, and does not owe a duty to give medical care.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
The law regarding children's medical care and religion is a complex and ever-changing one. If you are concerned about your duties as a parent or are charged with failing to provide medical care and you feel that your constitutionally guaranteed rights have been compromised, you should contact a civil rights lawyer. However, if you've been charged with child abuse/neglect due to your beliefs, then it is also important to contact a criminal lawyer. Finding the right lawyer experienced in constitutional law will inform you of your rights as well as preserve any possible legal remedies you may have.