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It's Time To End (Deadly) "Religious Freedom"

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Gay marriage and gay parents aren't a threat to children but a certain frighteningly widespread kind of Christianity is not just a threat but a death sentence. With the growth of the so-called charismatic faith healing denominations in America it's time to put child welfare ahead of our concept of religious freedom.

What do you think the reaction would be from the Religious Right leaders if -- since 1982 -- over fifty gay couples had been convicted of murdering their children in "gay rituals"? What would Glenn Beck be saying about gay marriage in that context? Yet according to the New York Times (Oct 8, 09) there have been at least 50 convictions in the United States since 1982 in cases where medical treatment was withheld from a child for religious reasons. And there have been hundreds more cases that weren't brought to trial out of over solicitous "respect" for religious freedom and parents' rights.

According to the New York Times, (Oct 8, 09) a Wisconsin couple was just sentenced to jail time for failing to seek medical attention for their daughter because they believed in "faith healing" instead of science. Dale and Leilani Neumann, were ordered to spend 30 days in jail each year for the next six years and were placed on 10 years' probation: a disgustingly lax slap on the wrist.

Mr. Neumann, 47, and Ms. Neumann, 41, who live in Weston, in central Wisconsin, had been convicted of second-degree reckless homicide in August. Their daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, 11, died from untreated diabetes on March 23, 2008. When the girl became ill and could no longer walk or talk, her parents prayed for her instead of taking her to a doctor, prosecutors said.

Sadly the Neumann case is hardly unique. One of the most disheartening media appearances I've ever made -- in terms of my being an author and commentator -- was on Court TV. In early August I was commentating on Oregon v. Carl and Rayle Worthington, involving fundamentalist parents who refused to give their child medical care on the basis of their trust in faith healing. (I was invited because as a former religious right leader -- long since departed from that subculture -- they thought I'd bring an "inside" perspective.)

The Worthington's fifteen-month-old little girl died (of something easily treatable) surrounded by her parents and other members of their congregation praying for healing. No one called 911.

As far as I'm concerned they used their daughter to try to "prove" a faith-related "point" the way some extremest suicide bombers sometimes use children to carry their bombs. And our reaction to their crime -- and another obscenely light sentence -- should be the same as it would be to an extremest bomber of a day care center.

Why aren't parents who kill their children for God not serving life sentences? Because of our crazy ideas about religious freedom that on so many fronts trump not just common sense but the rule of law. It's bad enough we allow parents in the far right evangelical home school and Christian school movements to pour anti-gay, anti-science, and anti-America (God is judging us) garbage into their children's heads. But surely a line should be drawn at murder!

As noted by the Times, "Shawn Peters, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied the nexus of religion and the law, said the Neumanns' light to trivial sentencing was not unusual... 'The sentences tend to be halfway punishments where you have relatively mild penalties imposed on parents who are found to be legally guilty of having caused a child's death,' Mr. Peters said. 'It underscores how uneasy we are both politically and culturally when it comes to regulating religious conduct even when the consequences are disastrous.'

Tens of thousands of children are at risk given the size of what used to be the fringe of fundamentalism but now is the fastest growing heartland of American Christianity. After all in a country where it seems "normal" for someone running for vice president -- Sarah Palin -- to have had an exorcist cast out witches and demons in a blessing before she ran for governor of Alaska, what's a little medical care withheld from a child in Crazyland?

Why the silence from the right (and from too many on the left too) about the proven danger that evangelical/fundamentalist "Christians" of certain denominations pose to their children because of their religion?

Praying for a child instead of calling a doctor is a form of religiously-inspired domestic terror with one terrified sad and helpless victim at a time being offered to the "god" of our national village idiots. It is time to curtail religious freedom in America. The silly level of respect given to religion that is not afforded to any other part of our society should be stripped away. Religious freedom should end when child well being is involved.

Parents, churches, whole denominations and religious communities that believe in faith healing -- to the exclusion of medical care -- are by definition death traps for children. Child welfare agencies need to pay special attention to the evangelical/fundamentalist "charismatic" community.

The state needs to take away children from anyone who denies care to their children or who says they will deny care--for any reason, religious or otherwise. They are as unfit for parenting as would be convicted pedophiles who belong to groups openly avowing rape and incest. And yes, that means that parents who are believers in faith healing -- again just to be clear, to the exclusion of medical care -- should be investigated as should their churches and denominations in the same way that any other criminal (and/or insane) group that threatens children with death would be.

Religious freedom means freedom to worship in the Church of your choosing and to believe anything you want. But before you're 18, society should protect you. Our idea of open-ended religious freedom is dumb. In fact -- and I'm speaking as a church-going Christian here -- it's a sin.

em>Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism)