By Faith Alone: When Religious Beliefs and Child Welfare Collide
Chapter from: The Contested Place of Religion in Family Law (Robin Fretwell Wilson, ed., Cambridge University Press, 2018)
38 Pages Posted: 6 Jul 2018
Date Written: July 5, 2018
In this chapter excerpted from The Contested Place of Religion in Family Law, law professor and family law expert Robin Fretwell Wilson discusses how to discipline one’s child, like the decision to treat “by faith alone,” sometimes runs deep in religious and cultural belief systems. The state’s regulation of childrearing not only impacts the parent’s liberty but also a community’s ability to hold onto its identity and transmit norms. Too often, the state’s solicitude for parental autonomy dictates the child’s fate. This chapter explores the limits of the broad and constitutionally recognized grant of parental power and documents the veritable kaleidoscope of exemptions for practices that expose children to real and present harm.
Section I reviews the constitutional parameters of the parent child relationship. It discusses four cases often invoked as proof of thick parental rights to the care, custody, and control of minor children and dependents — Meyer v. Nebraska, Pierce v. Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus & Mary, Prince v. Massachusetts, and Wisconsin v. Yoder — and ultimately shows that the US Supreme Court brackets parental authority derived from the Constitution: parents may not harm their children.
Section II evaluates the degree of harm to children that results from corporal punishment and faith healing. It presents a schism in views among social scientists about whether corporal punishment always harms children and shows that ethnic and cultural identity can moderate the experiences and effects of physical discipline, as well as presenting the few studies of faith healing practices and the overwhelming majority of children who have died as a result suffered from wholly treatable ailments.
Section III shows the degree of respect for parental autonomy, religion, and cultural practices reflected in state statutes that otherwise require parents to secure needed medical treatment for and to not abuse or neglect their children. Faith healing and corporal punishment laws define the fault lines between parental freedom and child abuse and neglect in each state, and states compensate for the latitude given to parents by charging adults in the community as mandatory reporters of child abuse and by authorizing judges to consent to needed treatment.
Using a single state, Idaho, as a case study, Section IV argues how a state’s regulation of child abuse, medical neglect, involuntary manslaughter, and lesser crimes operates to confer on parents in Idaho effective immunity from civil sanction when they act “by faith alone.” This overlapping statutory scheme has proven hard to reform, even as children continue to die. This is so, in part, because lawmakers are unsure whether attempts to constrain parental choices would ensure that children receive necessary medical care — or would backfire, pushing communities and families further from the law. Rather than only prosecuting parents, we conclude that strengthening linkages between the outside world and insular communities holds great promise for protecting children from harm at the hands of their parents.
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