Vol. 11 No. 2 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - March 1994
Christian Science Exemptions
By Dan Barker
The Cristian Scientists are at it again. They are trying to add Wisconsin to the list of states that exempt parents from prosecution if children suffer as a result of withholding medical treatment for religious reasons.
In many states, children have died while the parents have been immune from child abuse or manslaughter charges. Some of the Christian Science children known to have died from easily treatable illnesses include Michael Schramm, 12, ruptured appendix (WA-1979); Amy Hermanson, 7, diabetes (FL-1986); Ian Burdick, 15, diabetes (CA-1987); Ian Lundman, 11, diabetes (MN-1989); Ronald Rowan, 11, aspiration asphyxiation (OH-1979); Kris Ann Lewin, 13, bone cancer (PA-1981); Shauntay Walker, 4, meningitis (CA-1984); Robyn Twitchell, 2, twisted bowel (MA-1986); and Natalie Rippberger, 8, meningitis (CA-1984).
Last October the Massachusetts Senate repealed its religious exemption, rebuffing massive lobbying by the Christian Science religion, headquartered in Boston. South Dakota and Hawaii have done the same.
In spite of the fact that corrective legislation was introduced in Wisconsin in 1993 that would eliminate existing 20-year exemptions for Christian Science parents in the civil code, a new Senate bill has been introduced that would extend the exemptions to the criminal code.
A public hearing on the bill was held January 12 before the Wisconsin Senate Health Care Reform Committee at the state capitol. I went to testify, as an individual. I had to wait four hours in a room crowded with well-dressed, smiling Christian Scientists.
Senator Brian Rude, president of the Senate and principal author of Senate Bill 544, appealed to the separation of church and state, saying that all citizens have a "First Amendment right to freedom of religion," and that "the law is not a good way to address moral issues." Noting that Christian Scientists are speci�cally exempt in 27 states, Rude urged the senate to limit this exemption to Christian Scientists so that the state would not have to worry about possible abuses from cults.
Most of the testimony from local believers was anecdotal. A woman from Oshkosh told how God healed her son of a broken collarbone through Christian Science. "Prayer has proved to us that it works," she told the committee.
George Jeffrey, from the Christian Science Committee on Publication, pointed out that the state is free to step in and rescue suffering children if there appears to be a problem. "Christian Scientists are law-abiding people," he said. They would not fight state intervention. But when asked how the state is supposed to learn of these dying children when the religion is very secretive, Jeffrey had no answer.
One of the senators gave Jeffrey a tough time, not objecting to prayer, but wanting assurance that Christian Scientists are doing it right. "I believe in prayer for healing," the senator stated. "Some people live closely to God." How does the state know that Christian Science practitioners are truly "gifted by God?" she asked.
Jeffrey responded that "practitioners" (Christian Science medical substitutes who are paid for their services) go through a "two-week intensive training" in spiritual healing, learning the "same method used by Jesus." The senator nodded in approval.
When a committee member asked, "Do Christian Science practitioners ever suggest traditional medical treatment?" Jeffrey responded, "No." They gave him at least 20 minutes to talk.
Margaret Lewis, a former state legislator now lobbying for Christian Science, gave an impassioned plea for "religious freedom." Conceding that practitioners are not always 100% successful, she countered that there are "no guarantees with traditional medicine" either. As evidence of Christian Science effectiveness, she offered the book, Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age, by Robert Peel, containing, she said, "hundreds of examples" of proof.
Robert Carves, a fourth-generation Christian Scientist and a practitioner, urged the senate not to set up a "state religion" of medicine. We must let "spiritual values survive," allowing good people to "rekindle moral values."
All of the Christian Scientists appeared educated and polite. They repeatedly stressed how they obey the law and care for their families. The state has allowed Christian Scientists to adopt and take in foster children.
Only three of us spoke in opposition to the bill. Gary Schuster, District Attorney from Door County (a long drive), called SB 544 "an awful bill . . . a license to kill." He pointed out the danger that this exemption could be misused by abusive parents claiming "religious motivation." Schuster said that parents might be free to make martyrs of themselves, but they are not free to make martyrs of their children as a test of their faith.
The Assistant D.A. from Milwaukee County also opposed the bill, saying that it would grant certain parents "immunity from prosecutions for homicide" if the child died from neglect.
After much more anectodal praise for Christian Science, it was finally time for my three minutes. I mentioned a traumatic medical emergency in our family that was successfully handled with 911 and the professional staff of Meriter Hospital. Our doctor told us that Annie Laurie and our baby would have died without swift, capable treatment. "What if, instead of picking up the phone, I had dropped to my knees and started praying?" I asked the committee. "Would you have no problem with that?
"In my opinion," I continued, "Christian Science is pure quackery." The room crackled with disapproval.
"There has never been a single independent scientific study proving the effectiveness of Christian Science practitioners." Boos, grunts, and hisses from the polite religionists. "If there is such a study, your committee should demand to see it." Although the committee chair had earlier repeatedly asked the crowd to refrain from applause, she neglected to caution the audience when I was speaking.
"What we do have evidence of," I continued, "is that Christian Science children are dying!" I told about little Amy Hermanson, who died an agonizing death from treatable diabetes while her praying parents stood by and did nothing. A jury found the parents guilty of manslaughter, but the conviction was overturned because Florida law contains a specific exemption for Christian Scientists. "Is that what we want in Wisconsin?" I asked. Some states have removed their exemptions. "Should Wisconsin move backwards?"
As my three minutes were running out, I hurriedly mentioned that this bill would be unconstitutional. The Wisconsin constitution states that, "no preference shall be given by law" to any religious group (Art. I, Section 18).
As I took my seat, a woman handed me a slip of paper with these words: "See Mark chapter 5. What more scientific proof do you need?"
A week after the hearing, I received a copy of Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age at my home, mailed by a Christian Scientist who wanted me to know "the facts." It is packed with anedcotal, undocumented "proof" that Christian Science works and that medical science doesn't. The names of doctors and hospitals have been deleted, and there is no way to check "the facts."
In February the bill got out of committee, by a 4-3 vote. (They brought in an outsider to break a 3-3 tie.) It will now go before the full Senate.
National organizations that are opposed to religious exemptions include the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, and the National District Attorneys Association.