A couple of weeks ago, I shared a speech I’d given about the perceived conflict between “religious liberty” and civil rights. The basic thrust of the talk was that even in the freest societies, all liberties –including religious ones–have limits.
As an example, I pointed out that we don’t allow people to commit infanticide even if they have a totally sincere belief that their God wants them to sacrifice their firstborn.
When we discuss First Amendment freedoms in my classes, we talk about the more common questions that arise when parents have religious beliefs that forbid medical interventions even for children who are desperately ill, or parents who believe they are “called” to beat the devil out of their children. Courts generally do not look favorably on these assertions of “religious liberty” or “parental rights.”
So imagine my surprise when I came across this headline: “Idaho Is Reconsidering the Law Allowing Religious Parents to Kill Their Kids Without Punishment.”
Idaho is one of only six states where you can escape charges of negligent homicide, manslaughter, or capital murder as long as it happened as an exercise of your religious faith.
So if your child dies because your Christian Science religion prevented you from taking her to a doctor, you won’t be punished. And Idaho is the only state of those six where children have actually lost their lives as a result of their parents’ religious beliefs.
Evidently, an Idaho legislative committee is “studying” whether this law needs to be changed. A prosecutor who testified at a hearing convened by the committee explained that the law prevents her from charging such parents with child abuse or neglect, even though parents engaging in identical behaviors not based upon doctrinal belief would be criminally liable.
Pew recently posted a review of the states having the same or similar exemptions.
All states prosecute parents whose children come to severe harm through neglect. But in 34 states (as well as the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico), there are exemptions in the civil child abuse statutes when medical treatment for a child conflicts with the religious beliefs of parents, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Additionally, some states have religious exemptions to criminal child abuse and neglect statutes, including at least six that have exemptions to manslaughter laws.
Law is all about drawing lines. Respect for other people’s religious beliefs is an important value, but one would think that the well-being–indeed, the lives– of children would be an even more important value, one that would take precedence when that particular line is being drawn.
Where are all those “pro life” people when you need them? (Oh–I forgot–they’re not really “pro life,” they’re pro birth.)
I can’t help wondering–given the rhetoric of this election season–how much “respect” for “sincere religious belief” our lawmakers would display if the parents in question were Muslims…