May 16, 2012 – Laws protect a parent’s right to parent. Yet the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a case of first impression, may soon decide how far that right goes in a case where religious parents relied on “faith healing” to heal their sick child, and the child died.
Deeply religious members of the Pentecostal faith, Dale and Leilani Neumann relied on God and prayer to heal a sharp decline in the health of their 11-year-old daughter, Madeline, over a two-day period in March 2008. Madeline died of a treatable diabetic condition at the family home.
In separate trials, the Neumanns were convicted of second-degree reckless homicide and sentenced to 10 years of probation and one month of jail every year for six years.
In Wisconsin, like many states, parents who rely on prayer instead of traditional medical care to treat their children for injury or illness are exempt from child abuse and neglect laws under so-called “prayer treatment” or “faith-healing” exceptions. But how far does that exception go?
Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University Law School, says the Wisconsin case will turn on the complicated interplay between the state’s faith healing exception and its second-degree reckless homicide statute.
“These cases are not about religious freedom,” said Tuttle, who follows faith-healing cases, including the one pending here in Wisconsin. “It’s primarily a case that asks whether the parents were on clear notice of the point at which their protected conduct ran out.”
A state appeals court recently certified the Neumanns’ consolidated appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which could decide whether their convictions will stick.
Tuttle says these cases are hard to predict. “Even if it’s unclear when their protected conduct is no longer protected, that doesn’t necessarily mean their due process rights were violated.”
Dramatic Decline and Prayer Exception
For weeks before her death, Madeline felt weak, tired, and thirsty, according to court documents, but she was otherwise healthy to the casual observer. However, starting on March 21, 2008, Madeline’s health experienced a dramatic decline over approximately 48 hours.
During that time, her symptoms escalated from fatigue and blueness in the legs, to labored breathing, inability to communicate, and unconsciousness. The Neumanns relied on prayer to heal her, and called on family members and friends to pray for her recovery.
But by the time an ambulance was summoned, on the afternoon of March 23, Madeline was beyond saving and she died. The cause of death was determined to be diabetes ketoacidosis, which occurs when the body lacks insulin to break down sugar in the blood.
Her symptoms indicated this condition. With medical care, Madeline’s chances of recovery were good, almost 100 percent according to one expert witness.
The Neumanns, who home-schooled their four children and ran a family coffee shop outside Wausau, did not use more than aspirin and prayer to treat their children’s bumps, bruises, and illnesses.
Such prayer treatment is lawful, under Wis. Stat. section 948.03(6), an exception to Wisconsin laws that prohibit people from “recklessly causing great bodily harm to a child.”
Under the exception, a person cannot be guilty of recklessly causing great bodily harm to a child “solely” because he or she provides a child with treatment through prayer.
The Due Process Spectrum
Tuttle says most states passed faith-healing exceptions in 1970s, responding to pressure from proponents of the Christian Science faith and a federal regulation, rescinded in 1983, that required states to adopt faith-healing exemptions to receive funds for child abuse programs.
Some states, like Oregon, even allowed faith healing as a defense to prosecutions for homicide crimes, but those exemptions have largely been repealed, Tuttle says.
“The withdrawal of those exemptions has been the most dramatic change in the last 15 years,” he said. “Legislators have really pushed back on the scope of those exemptions.”
Wisconsin’s prayer treatment exception doesn’t shield parents from homicide prosecutions, only prosecutions for child abuse and neglect, but the Neumanns argue that Wisconsin law did not give them clear notice of when medical care became necessary under the law.
The state, which charged the Neumanns for second-degree reckless homicide, Wis. Stat. section 940.06, argues that the prayer treatment exception no longer applies when the child’s life is in danger. The Neumanns argue they didn’t know Madeline’s life was in danger until she died.
The question is: At what point does protected faith healing become unprotected reckless homicide? “If the child had died suddenly, then the parents probably have a good defense. But the fact is that the child’s health declined rapidly over two days,” Tuttle said.
Under section 940.06, a person is guilty of second-degree reckless homicide if his or her conduct creates an unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm to another human being, the actor is aware of that risk, and someone dies as a result.
“The defense is saying that the intersection of those statutes creates a constitutionally problematic ambiguity, so the parents didn’t know where faith-healing protection stopped and criminal liability began,” said Tuttle. “They are making a due process argument.”
But Tuttle says ambiguity alone won’t save the Neumanns, if it would have been clear to a reasonable person that medical attention was required earlier based on the facts.
“Most, but not all courts, have said that there is no due process violation simply because there are points along that spectrum and it may be hard to tell when protected conduct switches to unprotected conduct. The interplay of these statutes is very complicated.”
Indeed, the state appeals court passed the case to the supreme court for a decision on the statutory and constitutional issues raised, noting they are likely to arise in future cases.
“We submit that is appropriate for Wisconsin’s highest court to determine the scope of the prayer treatment exception and to inform trial courts regarding the appropriate jury instructions when that exception is raised in a reckless homicide case,” the certification states.
Joe Forward is the Legal Writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin.