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When is praying not enough?
Dueling bills seek to clarify duties of parents toward ailing kids
Berceau: 'Children don't get to choose their religion.' Taylor seeks a 'balance' between child protection and
religious freedom.
Berceau: 'Children don't get to choose their religion.' Taylor seeks a 'balance' between child protection and religious freedom.

In March 2008, 11-year-old Madeline Kara Neumann died of treatable diabetes because her parents prayed instead of calling the doctor.

Dale and Leilani Neumann were subsequently convicted of second-degree reckless homicide. But as the case unfolded, the possibility they might be acquitted on religious grounds caused an outcry. It also focused attention on Wisconsin's existing statute, enacted with backing from the Christian Scientists, that allows "treatment through prayer."

The Neumanns weren't Christian Scientists. But their case sparked a lobbying drive by the Christian Science church - one of the most prominent religious groups believing in faith healing.

"We acted very early when we heard about the Neumann case," says Joe Farkas, the church's Wisconsin lobbyist and a Christian Science practitioner himself.

Farkas says the church agrees the state's current law is flawed. Others suggest the church is trying to head off tougher limitations on faith healing and preserve the privilege of the church and its members under the law.

There are two rival bills now before the state Legislature, both introduced by Democrats. Farkas and the Christian Science church aggressively support one and oppose the other. And, as often happens, debate over the two measures has had a polarizing effect.

Both bills would repeal the state's existing law, which says parents cannot be charged with abuse or neglect merely for relying on "spiritual healing" instead of medical care in responding to their child's illness.

One bill - introduced by Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) - allows prosecutors to file abuse or neglect charges against parents who rely on prayer rather than medical help. The other, authored by state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), appears to make it easier for parents to defend themselves in court against such charges.

Right now Taylor's bill has the momentum, having been discharged from the Senate Judiciary Committee Taylor chairs on Dec. 1.

But Berceau is rallying support to her bill. The Wisconsin Nurses Association has registered to lobby for it, and support has been sounded by groups representing health-care professionals, social workers and prosecutors.

A Berceau aide actively rallied opposition to the Taylor bill, sending an email to unknown recipients asking them to contact committee members prior to the Dec. 1 vote. The committee nonetheless voted 4-1 in favor of sending it to the floor.

The lone "no" vote came from Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who declined to discuss his reasoning.

According to the Legislative Reference Bureau, Taylor's bill "creates a general affirmative defense for a parent or guardian of an individual under the age of 18 who reasonably uses, on the individual, spiritual treatment instead of medical treatment."

The bill sets forth a series of tests for whether a parent's reliance on "spiritual, prayer, or religious treatment" instead of medical care for a child under age 18 is "reasonable." Those include "the age and mental capacity" of the child, the health condition being treated spiritually, and whether the child exhibited symptoms "that would be, or should have been, recognized" as life-threatening.

Taylor says she's striving to create a "balance" between protecting children and protecting religious freedom. Had it been in place during the Neumann case, "it would have put the onus on the parents to show that what they did really was to a reasonable standard."

Farkas, whose organization helped write the bill, agrees: "We feel the Taylor bill is very clear that children must be protected and that there is not any unique special protection for people who practice religion. It restates existing law that says a child in danger can be taken into custody and have immediate medical attention provided."

But Rita Swan, an ex-Christian Scientist who blames the death of her son in 1977 on faith healing (she went on to found Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty), is firmly opposed.

"Current Wisconsin law does not offer a religious defense to criminal neglect, recklessly endangering safety or reckless homicide," she said in written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. "But [Taylor's bill] provides one, thus increasing the danger to Wisconsin's children."

Berceau says her bill, in contrast, recognizes that children may be powerless if their parents opt for faith healing rather than medicine. "Children," she notes, "don't get to choose their religion."

Both the Berceau and Taylor bills include language changing the state's Medical Practice Act relating directly to Christian Science practices. Under this act, "a person who elects Christian Science treatment in lieu of medical or surgical treatment for the cure of disease may not be compelled to submit to medical or surgical treatment."

Taylor's bill adds, "unless medical or surgical treatment of a child is law." Berceau's bill would instead change "person" to "adult." That's prompted Farkas to launch a full frontal attack.

In a letter to the editor in the Wisconsin State Journal in October, Farkas claimed the Berceau bill "tries to prevent parents from using prayer when children are not seriously ill or injured."

Berceau has called that a "mischaracterization," but Farkas defends it, saying, "We have Christian Science practitioners who pray for church members or children, and they are paid directly by church members." He suggests that Berceau's wording could again leave Christian Scientists who are paid to pray vulnerable to prosecution for practicing medicine without a license.

If it comes at all, the showdown between both bills would happen early this year, because either or both must probably pass by April 1 to beat the end of the session. Berceau says that the support her bill is getting from medical professionals is helpful, but she's not sure it's enough to carry the day.

"I think many people in this building are very skittish about dealing with religion," she says. "I'm trying to get the focus where it should be, which is on the safety and welfare of children. But the Christian Scientists are very, very active."

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