Faith Healing and Children

Tom Shipka

Suppose a child in the United States dies from a medically treatable condition because her parents prayed over her but did not take her to a doctor. Will criminal charges be filed against the parents? In most cases, no. American prosecutors have found it difficult to obtain convictions in such cases because the laws in most states exempt parents from prosecution for child neglect, child abuse, and manslaughter if their religion mandates spiritual healing. The statute in Wisconsin is typical. It says that a parent cannot be found guilty of a crime if "he or she provides a child with treatment (for sickness) by spiritual means lieu of medical or surgical accordance with (a bona fide) religious method of healing." (1) Such statutes were adopted by states in the mid-1970's at the behest of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare when it issued new regulations which exempted parents who practice spiritual healing from criminal charges. States were required to adopt this exemption to receive federal funds for child protection programs. (2) Even though HEW rescinded this exemption in 1983, exemptions remain on the books in more than forty states. (3)

Many groups have called for the repeal of these exemptions, among them the United Methodist Church, the National District Attorneys Association, the American Medical Association, and dozens of child advocacy groups. (4) Thus far, however, only Massachusetts, Colorado, South Dakota, Maryland, and Hawaii have repealed them. (5)

Those who practice spiritual healing take their cue from the Epistle of James in the Bible. Chapter 5, verse 14, asks "Are any among you sick?" and then prescribes prayer by elders and anointing with oil. (6) Historian Shawn Francis Peters says that faith-healers interpret this passage to mean that Christians should turn only to God and never to doctors to heal the sick. (7) Many who promote healing by prayer alone, Peters says, believe that prayer is superior to medical science, (8) and that it drives out the root cause of illness – Satan. (9) This abandonment of medicine by faith-healers contrasts sharply with most well-known advocates of prayer as therapeutic who call for prayer and traditional medical care. Larry Dossey, Herbert Benson, Harold Koenig, William Parker, Randolph Byrd, and Dale Matthews are among this group. (10)

In his book Peters shows that thousands of children have died needlessly in England and America due to lack of medical treatment, and that prosecutors, the public, and the media in these two countries increasingly tolerate refusal of medical care by adults on the grounds of religious liberty but increasingly object to parents denying medical care to their children. We have reached a point in America where the Congress needs to adopt a law similar to one in England which provides severe penalties if a parent fails to provide "adequate food, clothing, medical aid, or lodging for (a) child..." (11) If and when our government sends a signal that it is ready to follow the British lead, we can expect vigorous resistance from various faith-healer groups, especially the Church of Christian Science. That resistance must be overcome for the sake of the most vulnerable among us, our children.


  1. Shawn Francis Peters, When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 14-15. References to this book herein are by page number.
  2. Peters, page 116. Rita Swan, head of the child advocacy group, CHILD, avers that the HEW exemption was promoted by Christian Science staff during the Nixon administration, including H. R. Haldeman and John Erlichman. See Peters, p. 116.
  3. Peters, pages 112-116. Also, see "Christian Science," Wikipedia.
  4. Peters, p. 15.
  5. Peters, pages 197-202.
  6. Peters, p. 30.
  7. Peters, page 30.
  8. Oddly, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, himself a religious skeptic, came to the defense of faith-healers in Great Britain who were being harassed by prosecutors by accusing the government of a double standard. He noted that "hundreds of children (in the care of doctors) die every day" but few doctors were charged with crimes. See Peters, p. 60. Also see p. 80.
  9. Peters, page 33, page 72, and pages 78-79.
  10. Peters, pages 42-44.
  11. Quoted in Peters, p. 53.

© 2009 Tom Shipka