Once again, religious shield laws rear their head in the case of charges brought against the caregivers in a child’s death. The mother is trying to get out of her conviction of child neglect. One point glossed over in the story — the child died of painful bone cancer and the mother was charged with a misdemeanor.
The Tennessee Supreme Court may soon provide clarity to the murky issue of when parents can legally put their faith in prayer rather than medicine to heal a sick child.
The state’s high court has agreed to hear an appeal in a 12-year legal battle in Loudon County that pitted mother Jacqueline Crank’s religious freedom rights against state authorities who deemed her choice of prayer over medicine to be child abuse.
Jacqueline Crank’s daughter, Jessica Crank, died at the age of 15 in September 2002 from a rare form of bone cancer. Her mother, acting on the advice of alleged cult leader and Jessica’s “spiritual father” Ariel Sherman, spurned treatment in favor of prayer. After years of legal wrangling, both Crank and Sherman were convicted of misdemeanor child neglect.
This story gets icky fast. Sherman was not her real father but told authorities he was and advised Crank to rely on faith instead of medical attention when Jessica developed a tumor on her shoulder. From the first appeal decision [PDF], I find that authorities intervened and Jessica received treatment in June 2002 but it was too late; she died that September. So, it appears that not only did Sherman (now deceased) not have the child’s best interests (in this world) in mind but the mother failed her as well. It’s not mentioned what Jessica chose. The question surrounds the state’s spiritual treatment exemption provision contained in Tennessee law which says:
Nothing in this chapter [Tennessee Code Annotated Title 39, Chapter 15, setting forth certain offenses against children, including child abuse and neglect] shall be construed to mean a child is neglected, abused, or abused or neglected in an aggravated manner for the sole reason the 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 thereof in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.
Crank alleges that this provision “violates due process as unconstitutionally vague” and that it “violates the Establishment Clause and equal protection guarantees.” Because it is unconstitutional, Crank contends her conviction must be reversed and the charge dismissed. What’s a recognized church or what is an actual religious denomination? It’s not clear. There is a problem with the Tennessee laws. Does that allow for Crank to be acquited? No.
The State disagreed with her claim regarding unconstitutionally vague contending that the
provision violates the equal protection rights of children. That is, this provision was an amendment. Crank was convicted under THIS statute:
“Any person who knowingly, other than by accidental means, treats a child under eighteen (18) years of age in such a manner as to inflict injury or neglects such a child so as to adversely affect the child’s health and welfare commits a Class A misdemeanor[.]” Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-15-401(a)
Will the court take up the issue of relgious freedom over protection of children’s rights? I hope so and rule that no religious belief should be given deference to withhold proper care from children. Depending on what the court rules, the result would be some change to the messed up Tennessee law.