Legislators and church groups squared off Wednesday on a bill that would remove the exemption of parents who practice faith healing on their children from Wisconsin child abuse laws.
Under current Wisconsin law, an individual is not guilty of child abuse if he or she chooses spiritual healing through prayer for a child over medical treatment. Under the bill, this exemption would be removed.
“It is not an easy matter to mix faith and parental decision-making. In our culture, we subscribe to the belief that parents are responsible for the welfare of their children,” sponsor Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, said at the bill’s public hearing. “We should treat all families the same, no matter the religion, in the name of saving children’s lives. I do not believe it is right for children to die for their parents’ beliefs.”
The Assembly bill was created in the wake of the 2008 death of 11-year-old Madeline Kara Neumann who died from a treatable form of insulin-dependent diabetes in Wisconsin after her parents chose to pray rather than seek medical assistance.
“We definitely do not believe it is the will of God for children to be harmed in any way or die,” Joe Farkas, media and legislative liaison for Christian Science Churches in Wisconsin, said at the hearing. “But this bill could uproot a child’s life based on someone’s intolerance. We should be focused on actions people take and their effect on children and not what organization they might belong to.”
Proponents of the bill argue the issue is bigger than just the Neumann case and affects all Wisconsin children.
“I don’t think anyone believes the Neumanns meant to kill their child,” Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison, said. “The bottom line is that this is about every child in Wisconsin having the right to medical treatment. That right supersedes the right of parents to deny that medical treatment.”
However, Farkas’ group worries the language of the Assembly bill is too vague and could lead to religious prejudice.
“We support removing the exemption that was at the center of the Neumann case. It should not be a shield for reckless behavior,” Farkas said. “We do want to see language that doesn’t discriminate against religion in a court case.”
Roys disputed many of Farkas’ claims of the potential for religious discrimination under the bill.
“Some of the claims that Mr. Farkas is making — that it will prohibit parents from praying for their kids — that’s totally ridiculous and has no basis in reality,” Roys said. “We would never pass a law like that. This is really about what rights Wisconsin kids have under the law.”
A Senate bill also concerning the repeal of exemption for faith healing is currently circulating Capitol Hill, but with the addition of an “affirmative defense” if parents provide a “standard of reasonable care” for their child. Farkas’ group has been involved with the drafting of this bill and supports it over the Assembly version.