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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Children, Faith-healing, and Religious Exemptions

Do your state laws protect parents who allow their children to die without medical care because of their religious beliefs? Until recently I was not sure how this question should be answered for my own state--  and just as a reminder for readers  outside the U.S., the 50 states have differing laws on many topics, so knowing one state’s position does not tell you what happens in other states.

Ordinarily, a failure to provide medical care for a child when it is desperately needed would be considered a criminal matter of neglect and abuse. Civil suits against the parents might also be a possibility. But some states provide religious exemptions to parents who cite religious beliefs such as commitment to the power of prayer as justification for a failure to seek medical care for a child. As far as these parents are concerned, prayer or similar activities are the treatment they should give, and in fact to do otherwise indicates the weakness of their faith in God and endangers their souls and those of their children.

I’m indebted for information about this to CHILD, Inc. (, and to a map displaying the legal positions of the states at . (This map is based on data drawn from
You can probably look at the map graphic yourself, but I am going to describe the similar positions taken by groups of states. By the way, as you will see, this does not play out geographically exactly as one might guess.

Let me point out first that six states allow no religious exemptions to either criminal or civil charges involving abuse and neglect. These forward-thinking states are the following: Hawaii, Oregon, Nebraska, North Carolina, Maryland, and Massachusetts. (Boo, New Jersey! I had expected better of you!)

Twelve states allow no criminal exemptions, but they do allow religious exemptions in the case of civil suits resulting from neglect or abuse of children. Exemptions in civil suits may discourage child protective services from pursuing a case at the civil level, which requires a less stringent proof than criminal cases do. The states that allow these religious exemptions to civil suits are these: New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont, and Florida. Parents who fail to provide medical care to very sick children for religious reasons are liable for criminal prosecution, which has a high standard of proof, but not for civil actions, with their lower standard.

Fourteen states allow religious exemptions only in criminal cases involving misdemeanors like a non-felony level of child endangerment, not in cases of murder or manslaughter. These states are: California, Nevada, Colorado, South Dakota, Kansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, New York, New Hampshire, and Maine.  In those states, there are no religious exemptions for civil suits related to incidents of neglect or abuse.

Nine states allow religious exemptions to prosecution for felony crimes against children, in which sexual assaults are included, as are child endangerment and neglect. These states are: Washington, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Tennessee, West Virginia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Finally, almost unbelievably, there are six states that allow religious exemptions to prosecution for negligent homicide, manslaughter, and even capital murder. These are: Idaho, Iowa, Arkansas, Louisiana, Ohio, and Indiana.

The reasons for the broad religious exemptions in this last group of states presumably have to do with the proportion of their populations who want to choose faith-healing over standard medical care, probably for themselves, but most relevantly for their children. The most obvious community for these people to belong to is Christian Science, but there are a wide variety of other faith-healing-oriented groups like Followers of Christ or Church of the First Born. Charismatic churches in general are committed to the principle that once “born again”, Christians can have access to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including discernment (diagnosis) and exorcism or deliverance (expulsion of the demons responsible for both physical and mental illness). Like other people, these groups of believers are attracted to areas where there are many of their co-religionists, and as they increase in number move into a position where they can influence state laws. In addition, of course, once laws have created religious exemptions for child abuse and neglect, even more such believers will arrive. This process helps to establish the polarization responsible for the current “culture wars” in the U.S.

One more point: this blog usually focuses on issues that have to do with child development from a psychological viewpoint. Do religious exemptions to abuse and neglect charges play a role in those issues? I think they probably do, although child deaths are much less likely even in alternative psychotherapies than they are in cases of medical need. However, injuries short of fatality may still be considered abusive. Religious views seem implicated in the apparent use of Attachment Therapy at the Seventh Day Adventist school, Miracle Meadows, in West Virginia (see above, by the way). There is considerable overlap between the authoritarian views held by some religious groups and those held by practitioners of Attachment Therapy. If practitioners or parents claim that religious beliefs are the justification of child mistreatment as a psychotherapeutic or educational method , there are a number of states in which this reasoning will help them evade prosecution.

There was little discussion of these issues during the successful efforts to ban “conversion therapy” in California and New Jersey. This may have been because only mental health professionals are prohibited from doing this treatment, and then the ban involves minor clients only. Parents and clergypersons can go ahead and use “conversion therapy” if they want to--- but perhaps one day an affected minor will grow up able to prove that he or she was harmed, and we will see whether courts accept the religious exemption then.  


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