Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
Ralph Burr’s son and daughter never visited a doctor when they were growing up in the ’70s. When they got sick, Burr, who is now the spokesman for Washington’s Christian Scientists, followed the teachings of his religion: He enlisted a Christian Science practitioner to help heal his children through prayer.
If Burr were to do the same thing today, inspectors from the District’s Department of Human Services might investigate him for neglecting his children, and a judge in the Superior Court’s Family Division might intervene to force medical treatment on them.
“It is really quite startling to think of myself as a neglectful parent,” Burr says. “I turned to God to help my children….I relied on practitioners.”
But turning to God is no longer enough to shield Burr and other Christian Scientists from the District government. In August, responding to federal pressure, the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation abolishing a “religious exemption” that protected Christian Scientist parents from charges of neglect when they withheld medical treatment from their children. The council’s Committee on Human Services has scheduled a public hearing for Dec. 13 to discuss the law, and committee Chair Linda Cropp says the council will probably vote to make the legislation permanent early next year. Local Christian Scientists, furious about the intrusion on their free exercise of religion, are lobbying councilmembers to abandon the emergency legislation and return to the religious exemption.
“Our feeling is that this change in the law deprives us of our First Amendment right to practice our religion,” Burr says.
Prior to the council’s emergency action, the D.C. code held that a child who was “under treatment solely by spiritual means…in accordance with the tenets and practices of a recognized church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner thereof” could not be considered legally neglected, and the city government could not interfere with the religious healing.
But the revised statute excises that protection, defining a “neglected child” as a child “who is without…care or control necessary for his or her physical, mental, or emotional health (including those instances where medical treatment is not provided because of the religious objections of the child’s parent, guardian, or other custodian to such treatment).” Under the new law, Christian Scientist children who don’t receive medical treatment are entitled to the same legal protection as other neglected children: Concerned adults may report suspected cases of child neglect; city social service workers may investigate the reports; and family-court judges may require medical treatment for children or even remove them from their parents’ custody.
Christian Science, a branch of Christianity established in 1879 by Boston zealot Mary Baker Eddy, holds as a fundamental tenet that followers should rely on God for healing. In Christian Science, certified practitioners pray for and counsel the sick, and that concentration of faith cures disease without the intervention of doctors, drugs, or surgery.
The church, which is headquartered in Boston, will not reveal the number of its followers, saying only that it has 1,600 churches across the nation, including six in the District.
According to Phil Davis, the Church’s federal lobbyist and a Christian Science practitioner, members of the faith know that their healing practices succeed.
“It’s a system that has been established for more than 100 years. Trust in God and actively praying for God’s help brings healing,” Davis says. “The No. 1 misconception about our religion is that since we don’t go to doctors, therefore we are denying care. We are providing treatment to children, but it is not conventional treatment.”
To call such treatment “neglect” simply because it rejects conventional medicine, Davis continues, tramples the religious freedom of Christian Scientist parents who are honestly seeking the best care for their children. “Any good parent who has smallchildren or infants has to make decisions every day for their children. And they make those decisions out of love. Christian Scientists are no different,” Davis says. “They are simply choosing what they feel is the safest and best care for their child.”
But rejection of traditional medicine has routinely brought Christian Scientists into conflict with child-abuse prevention advocates. During the past decade, Christian Scientist parents who have refused medical treatment for severely ill children have been prosecuted criminally in several states, including Florida, Minnesota, and California. In the most celebrated case, Commonwealth vs. Twitchell, a couple from Massachusetts were convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of their child. The Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned their conviction this year.
Though it was the council that removed the religious exemption from the D.C. code, local Christian Scientists really blame the federal government for the change. Under newly enforced federal regulations, in order to receive child-abuse prevention grants from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), states and the District must adopt laws allowing them to report, investigate, and intervene in cases where parents are withholding medical treatment—even for spiritual reasons. According to HHS spokeswoman JaneCheckan, the agency’s Administration of Children and Families, which awards $23 million per year in such grants, gave states and the District until the end of fiscal 1993 to modify their laws and abolish religious exemptions.
Checkan argues that the federal government is only protecting the well-being of children. “States are required to report, investigate, and treat endangered children,” she says. “You can’t just say, “OK, the parent asserts a religious exemption.’ ”Checkan adds that HHS requires only that states be able to intervene to help children; states do not have to prosecute Christian Scientist parents for neglect.
District officials decided that they couldn’t afford to fight the feds. The mayor’s office calculated that, although direct child-abuse prevention grants totaled only $150,000 per year, the city might also lose another $1.6 million in related federal grants for families and children if it failed to change its law. When HHS warned the city this summer of the impending deadline, the mayor asked the council to pass the emergency legislation, and the council, also unwilling to sacrifice the federal money, complied.
HHS, Christian Scientists say, is engaging in blackmail, forcing the District to choose between changing its laws or losing federal grant money.
“We would like to see the District of Columbia stand up against HHS and say this is unwarranted,” says Burr. “HHS has presented no evidence that Christian Scientist children in the District of Columbia are suffering. We would like the council to work with HHS to preserve the religious accommodation that has served us all well for years.”
Lee Boothby, a Washington lawyer who specializes in church/state issues, concurs. “I don’t think it’s the role of the federal government to dictate to states how they deal with the sensitive matter of religious exemption,” he says.
Davis also notes that California has refused to remove its religious exemption and has sued HHS, claiming that the regulations were arbitrary and capricious. According to Davis, a federal district court judge recently required HHS to continue California’s grants, despite the state’s failure to rewrite its laws.
Councilmember Cropp says she sympathizes with Christian Scientists, and though the District is unlikely to try to block HHS in court, the council will try to write permanent legislation that safeguards religious freedom.
“I think that we may modify our existing law so that the money would not be in jeopardy, and at the same time we would not violate the religious rights of individuals,” Cropp says. The permanent legislation, she adds, will probably be much less restrictive than the emergency legislation, allowing for government intervention only when there is “extreme, serious harm” to a child.
As it stands, however, the law has a “chilling” effect, Davis says.
“[Christian Scientists] share the rest of society’s care that children are being abused. But have we reached the point where we want to put religious policemen in every home?” he asks. “Where is the evidence that our practice is more harmful than conventional medical care?…Good parents should have the right to make responsible choices, and Christian Science is a responsible choice.”