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Religion, Death, and the Law

by William Harwood

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 23, Number 3.

There are American states in which Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists who kill their children by denying them lifesaving blood transfusions or other medical procedures can escape the consequences of their crime by pleading "freedom of religion." Currently, thirty-nine states' civil codes include religious exemptions from child abuse or neglect charges, while thirty-one allow a religious defense to a criminal charge.1 In a study of 172 child deaths where medical treatment was withheld on religious grounds, it was found that 140 children would have had at least a 90 percent likelihood of survival with medical care.2

The 1996 Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) did not include "a Federal requirement that a parent or guardian provide a child any medical service or treatment against the religious beliefs of the parent or guardian."3 A senator from Indiana and a congressman from Pennsylvania, both Republicans (so what else is new?), have actually argued that parents have a First Amendment right to withhold medical care from their children.4 Even in those states where homicidal child neglect is prosecuted, defendants are allowed to offer the jury a defense based on sectarian beliefs not held by other religions. Why?

The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Under that amendment, any law, court ruling, or jury verdict that denies adherents of a minority religion or belief system the rights granted to practitioners of all other belief systems would be unconstitutional. Christians are permitted to swear oaths on the sacred book of their choice; therefore Jews and Muslims must be permitted to swear oaths on the sacred books of their choice, and nontheists permitted to "affirm" rather than "swear" under the same penalty of perjury.

But just as the First Amendment prohibits denying to adherents of designated religions rights granted to all others, so does it prohibit granting to designated religions rights not enjoyed by all others. Laws criminalizing homicide by neglect are applicable to the whole population. They are not laws respecting an establishment of religion. Since killing children by substituting prayer for necessary medical procedures is a criminal offense for Catholics, that makes it a criminal offense for Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses as well. Any law giving those religions the right to withhold lifesaving procedures from children is therefore unconstitutional. Neither Congress nor a court can make such a law.

Even in parts of the world that have no equivalent of America's First Amendment, nobody has ever suggested that Thuggs and Assassins, whose religions demand that they ritually sacrifice outsiders, should be able to violate laws prohibiting homicide by pleading "freedom of religion." Why should America, which does prohibit special rights to religion, be less strict? Freedom of religion does not include the freedom to kill. And what of the religions that are trying to force whole populations that disagree with them to grant a "right to life" to prehuman tadpoles with zero brainwave activity indicative of human thought? Are they screaming with outrage and demanding the same "right to life" for children whose parents choose to let them die? Their silence is deafening.


1. Iowa and Ohio allow a religious defense for manslaughter. Delaware and West Virginia allow a religious defense for the murder of a child. Arkansas allows a religious defense for capital murder. Oregon allows a religious defense for homicide by abuse. States with a religious defense for child endangerment, criminal abuse or neglect, and cruelty to children include Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Since 1990, some similar laws have been repealed in Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, and South Dakota.

2. Pediatrics, 101 (April 1998): 625-29.

3. Sec. 113, Rule of Construction.

4. For additional information see www.childrenshealthcare.org 

William Harwood is the editor/translator of The Judaeo-Christian Bible Fully Translated (Booksurge.com) and the author of several novels including Uncle Yeshu, Messiah, and The Autobiography of God (Xlibris.com).

[*] Secular Humanism Online Library

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