A mother and father who prayed instead of seeking medical help as their daughter died were properly convicted of homicide, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a decision that dramatically limits legal immunity for parents who turn to prayers rather than science to heal their children.
The decision marks the first time a Wisconsin court has addressed criminal culpability in a prayer treatment case where a child died. The court ruled 6-1 that the state’s immunity provisions for prayer treatment parents protect them from child abuse charges but nothing else, opening the door to a host of other counts.
“No one reading the treatment-through-prayer provision should expect protection from criminal liability under any other statute,” Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote for the majority.
Most states, including Wisconsin, created exemptions from child abuse charges for prayer-healing parents in the 1970s to meet federal requirements.
At least 303 children have died since 1975 after medical care was withheld on religious grounds, according to Rita Swan, director of the Iowa-based advocacy group Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty. Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska and North Carolina have taken their exemptions off the books, Swan said.
The Wisconsin case revolves around an 11-year-old girl named Madeline Kara Neumann, known as Kara to family and friends. She died of undiagnosed diabetes in March 2008 at her home in Weston, a central Wisconsin village about 140 miles north of Madison.
Kara, who had been growing weak for several weeks leading up to her death, eventually became too sick to speak, eat, drink or walk. Her parents don’t belong to any organized religion or church but identify themselves as Pentecostal Christians and believe visiting a doctor is akin to worshipping an idol, the Supreme Court opinion said.