“The Whole Enchilada:” Religious Exemptions for Children’s Medical Care

The Sick ChildThe Sick Child. J. Bond Francisco, 1893 (Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum)

In March, 1967, thirty-one-year-old Dorothy Sheridan, a single mother and a Christian Scientist, prayed that her five-year-old daughter Lisa would understand that God had created a sinless, illness-free spiritual world and thus be freed from the illusory grip of pneumonia. For days Lisa had a high fever, coughed up greenish mucus, and had trouble breathing. Sheridan did not call a doctor. She had embraced “radical reliance,” as defined by Mary Baker Eddy, discoverer and founder of Christian Science. “The scientific government of the body,” Eddy wrote in Science and Health (1875), “must be attained through the divine Mind. It is impossible to gain control over the body in any other way. On this fundamental point, timid conservatism is absolutely inadmissible. Only through radical reliance on Truth can scientific healing be realized.” But weeks passed and Sheridan’s reliance on prayer did not relieve Lisa’s suffering. Unable to force air into her lungs, Lisa died.

At the conclusion of a three-day trial, a jury found Sheridan guilty of willfully neglecting to provide proper medical care to her daughter, a criminal misdemeanor. She was sentenced to five years’ probation. David Sleeper, a senior Christian Science official, told the members of Sheridan’s congregation that “Divine authority” trumped man-made law. He urged parents not to succumb to the “enchantments of medicine” and not to be afraid to rely totally on “Christian Science practice for yourself and your children.” Lobbyists employed by the church took a different message – freedom of religion – to the Massachusetts legislature and convinced lawmakers to add a religious exemption to the child support law used to convict Sheridan. The exemption stipulated that a child would not be considered neglected or lacking proper medical care “for the sole reason that he is being provided remedial treatment by spiritual means in accordance with the tenets and practice of a recognized church.” Massachusetts became the eleventh state to adopt voluntarily a religious exemption.

About the same time, the discovery that each year tens of thousands of children were badly mistreated by their parents dominated headlines across the country and led the American Academy of Pediatrics and other advocates for children’s care to push state legislatures to enact mandatory reporting laws of suspected abuse. These laws soon generated a demand for programs and services to combat child abuse. The U.S. Congress responded with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), a bill championed by Senator Walter Mondale and signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1974.

The act authorized the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Casper Weinberger, to write regulations implementing the law. While there is no “smoking gun,” it seems very likely that John Ehrichman and H. R. Haldeman, President Nixon’s closest advisors and lifelong Christian Scientists, persuaded their fellow Californian Weinberger to include a religious exemption in the national law’s regulations and to require states eager to receive federal funds to add a religious exemption to their child abuse statutes. This latter feature provided a legal shield to all Christian Science parents who caused their child to suffer pain or death because they were denied needed medical care. In the words often used by Nixon insiders, the church got the “whole enchilada.”

This meant that the only option open to children’s advocates trying to guarantee medical care for ill youngsters was to repeal the religious exemption laws state by state. The campaign began in Massachusetts following the death of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy whose Christian Science parents had embraced radical reliance and, therefore, offered only prayer to their seriously ill son. With help from Rita Swan, president of Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD), a coalition of Massachusetts child care advocates, legislators, prosecutors, and physicians worked toward repeal. The coalition was joined by only one religious group, the American Jewish Congress. Their seven-year effort led to repeal of the state’s religious exemption law in 1993.

The Massachusetts coalition hoped their success would lead to the repeal of religious exemptions in every state. However, today only ten additional states require a parent to seek medical care for a seriously ill child. In the remaining states, parents who practice spiritual healing are protected by law.

About the Author

Alan Rogers

Alan Rogers teaches U.S. Constitutional and Legal History at Boston College. His recent books include Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts and The Child Cases: How America's Religious Exemption Laws Harm Children. On a sometimes happier note, he is a huge BC football fan.

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