Apr 16, 2016

House votes to repeal ‘spiritual treatment’ exemption to child-abuse law

Richard Locker of The Commercial Appeal
Commercial appeal
April 15, 2016


Tennessee House

NASHVILLE — The House gave final legislative approval Thursday to a bill repealing a controversial 1994 law that was at the center of a long court fight over the 2002 death of a Loudon County child whose mother refused medical care in favor of "spiritual treatment" and prayer.

The bill repeals the "spiritual treatment" exemption to Tennessee's child abuse and neglect statute. The exemption was intended to provide a shield from child abuse and neglect prosecution for parents and others if a child "is being provided treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone, in accordance with the tenets or practices of a recognized church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner" of the church or denomination in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.

The repeal bill, Senate Bill 1761, is sponsored by Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, a cardiac surgeon, and Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, a lawyer. It won unanimous Senate approval in March and an 85-1 vote Thursday in the House and now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam, who's expected to sign it into law.

The exemption came into play less than a decade after its enactment, in the 2002 death of Jessica Crank, 15. Her mother Jacqueline Crank was a follower of Ariel Ben Sherman, who conducted religious services under the name of the Universal Life Church in a rented house in Lenoir City.

Jessica became ill with what was diagnosed later as Ewing's Sarcoma. Her mother and Sherman declined, after an initial visit with a chiropractor and later a walk-in clinic, to pursue doctors' urgent referrals to hospitals for treatment. After the child's death, her mother and minister were indicted on child neglect charges. Both were eventually convicted after courts ruled that Sherman's group was not a "recognized church or denomination" covered by the exemption.

Sherman died during appeals. But the mother's conviction was finally upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court in February 2015, in a ruling that also held the spiritual treatment exemption is not so vague as to render it unconstitutional.

Briggs and Farmer introduced the bill this year in an attempt to repeal the exemption. Briggs cited his experience with a similar case years ago, when he was a general surgeon in another state and teen boy was brought to see him with a ruptured appendix. His parents initially opposed surgery on religious grounds but later agreed to treatment.

The bill was backed by a Kentucky-based group, Children's Healthcare Is Legal Duty (CHILD), that works for repeal of similar spiritual treatment exemptions across the country. Its president Rita Swan issued a statement thanking lawmakers for repealing the exemption in Tennessee.

"CHILD believes all parents, regardless of their religious belief, should have a legal duty to obtain medical care for their child when necessary to prevent serious harm," Swan said. "Courts have never ruled that parents have a constitutional right to abuse or neglect children in the name of religion, and Tennessee should not give them a statutory right to do so."

http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/government/state/house-votes-to-repeal-spiritual-treatment-exemption-to-child-abuse-law-30749c67-1f54-5f3a-e053-01000-375735951.html
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