Is it okay if a child dies in the name of religious freedom?

Photo: Bruno, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: Bruno, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

So let’s start with some basic truths about religion in America, facts that we can all agree upon.

Right now in our country there are people who view themselves as good, decent, God-fearing folk who believe that women are fundamentally inferior to men. They think women were fashioned unequally by their Maker and should possess legal and moral rights, in large measure, through the mediation of their fathers, brothers and husbands.

In part because of those religious views, we still haven’t reached the first centenary of women voting in the US.  And there are still women living in America today who possess far fewer rights and civil liberties than black people enjoyed in the South during the era of Jim Crow.  In some cases, this religious subjugation is willing – an embrace of what some women view as a traditional or faith-based lifestyle.

But for many girls, particularly children educated in religious schools or home-schooled or simply denied an education, their parents’ embrace of a particular kind of religious faith will very likely consign these young women to a lifetime of dependency and powerlessness.

In fact, one cornerstone of the religious liberty these believers embrace is the conviction that women lack the moral and intellectual standing to make their own choices.

It’s kind of a painful irony, right?  In America, these people of faith are free to believe that other Americans — fifty percent of the population, in fact — lack the essential qualities needed to enjoy their own freedom.

Meanwhile, right now in America there are also good, decent God-loving people who believe that when their young children contract meningitis or leukemia or pneumonia – in many cases treatable with modern science – they should respond to these biological events with prayer and meditation. Any recourse to medical treatment is viewed as weakness and a betrayal of their faith.

For much of the last century, parents who deliberately denied their children proper medical care could be prosecuted. But in the 1970s two powerful Christian Scientists in the Nixon administration, H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichman, pushed through a religious amendment to federal law, insuring that “no parent or guardian who in good faith is providing a child treatment solely by spiritual means… shall for that reason alone be considered to have neglected the child.”

As a consequence, in the name of religious freedom, children sometimes die in the US, their bodies wracked with agonizing infections, their lungs filled with fluid, despite the availability of medical treatment. An act that would be prosecuted as criminal neglect on the part of any other parent is protected in the name of one sect’s definition of religious faith.

And right now in America, there are good, decent, God-honoring people who believe that men and women with a different sexual orientation from their own are mentally ill, morally corrupt or cosmologically “unnatural.” Christians in particular can point to passages in Scripture where homosexuality is viewed with such disdain that believers are commanded to murder anyone who has intercourse with a person of the same gender.

As a consequence, there are already thousands of families across the US defined under our system of law as invalid or unequal. They and their children are denied many of the benefits and protections conferred by marriage. And there are currently movements in state legislatures to pass new laws ensuring that people of faith are free to act upon their convictions that their peaceful, law-abiding neighbors are, to borrow the Bible’s phrasing, “detestable” or “an abomination.”

To be clear, no one is suggesting that believers be free to carry out the Biblical commandment to kill gays and lesbians. No one is arguing that we take religious liberty quite that far.

But  these relatively simple and straight-forward examples of religious faith show that it’s important to think hard about what we mean when we talk about freedom and rights. It’s important to remember that while religion is a powerful and positive force in our lives, every spiritual tradition also carries ideas and convictions in its DNA that are morally questionable, sometimes painfully irrational, and in some cases distinctly repugnant.

We’re not talking about pizza parlors not serving gay people. That’s bush league stuff. We’re talking about something much more potentially frightening and destructive and divisive.  We’re talking about the larger fabric of American society.   After all, if we agree that religious freedom allows us to reject doing business with gay people, surely believers are free to do the same with black people or Jews or Muslims or Christians of other denominations.

If my version of Scripture claims that women are morally, intellectually and biologically inferior to men, surely I can refuse to hire them or promote them? Or at the very least deny them medical care of a type that I don’t approve through my company’s insurance plan.  And what if my religion teaches me – as so many religions do – that people of other faiths are unclean, or corrupt, or depraved? Why can’t I march through their neighborhoods mocking them and their beliefs, as Protestants have done to Catholics for so many decades in Northern Ireland?

Surely I should be free to do that.  Right?

My point isn’t that religious freedom is bad.  Of course it’s not.  It’s a fundamental concept in our society.  But like every other foundational idea it has to be leavened with common sense.  In fact, it’s like every kind of freedom, from gun ownership to the stewardship of one’s own land, to free speech to the other civil liberties we enjoy as individuals. There are tensions. There are gray zones. There are complicated lines. And once you cross those lines, your defense of freedom often becomes someone else’s loss of freedom.

Fundamentally, I think the debate over “religious freedom” laws in Indiana and other states is a healthy thing. I think it should open a much wider and more involved discussion in America about how our mishmash of wildly different faiths can co-exist in a society that is also increasingly secular, non-religious and technologically advanced.

What do we do when one particular religious group want the rest of us to live by a set of rules that are no longer generally shared? What do we do when a religious group does something they view as fundamentally good and faith-based, but that seem to be hurting or curtailing the rights of other human beings? The truth is that the least complicated thing in the world is deciding whether some guy in the Midwest should serve a gay person a slice of pizza.

The bigger ethical challenges will come the next time a little girl is dying because of her mom’s conviction that a higher power will save her from a bacterial infection. Or the next time we find that a community of American parents are forcing their daughters to undergo genital mutilation. Or the next time one particular sect demands that science teachers in our public schools present one particular creation myth alongside peer-reviewed facts about geology, physics and biological evolution.

In the end, I think we’ll continue to move gradually toward that golden standard of liberty, where your freedom ends at the tip of the next guy’s nose. If you think your God wants you to hate gay people or minimize the value of women or stop taking your diabetes medicine, most Americans would say — knock yourself out.  Get your liberty on.  That’s the American way.  But if you think your faith allows you to deny a gay couple a home mortgage loan (or a marriage license), or limit the advancement of a talented woman in your company, or deny your child penicillin, then you’re on thin ice.

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35 Comments on “Is it okay if a child dies in the name of religious freedom?”

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  1. hermit thrush says:

    no, it is not ok if a child dies in the name of religious freedom. religious freedom, like all freedoms, comes with limits.

    i also have to say, i find it bitterly ironic that many religious people seek to deny gay people equal treatment on account of their “choice of lifestyle,” whereas in reality one’s religion is where the real choice lies, as opposed to in one’s sexual orientation.

  2. Ken Hall says:

    Not only is it not reasonable for any child to die, be mutilated or be subjected to irrational inequality considerations of any manifestation. The irreparable harm to any person of either sex, especially females, perpetrated by the fear driven illogical belief in the infallibility of religious dogma should be recognized for what it is, a methodology through which the powerful in our societies manipulate and control the weak. Why does the right to religious belief include the right to heap cruelty upon ones own children and other members of of ones religious clique, such as shunning, genital mutilation, slavery, ., ., ..and out right torture? It is done so as to perpetuate the conviction on the part of the perpetrators that their interpretation of their particular brand of religious dogma is the “true WORD of god” and to ensure their dominion over everyone on the Earth.

    How ridiculous is it to mouth platitudes about religious “freedom” and simultaneously require that your very own children accept your religious dogma as their religious dogma or else? I live cheek by jowl with Amish folks and it is mightily upsetting to observe the children working the gardens and fields who will be constrained by their parents religious beliefs to the same life stye of no electricity, no running water, no, no, no, ., . and no real education other than that which their religious leaders deem appropriate. Where is the freedom of choice for these children and billions of other folks children who subscribe to one of the multitudes of religious dogmas here on Spaceship Earth?

  3. Brian Mann says:

    Jimmy Carter wrote interestingly about his own journey on these questions, which led him to leave the Southern Baptist Convention because of its teachings about women.

    “At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.”

    –Brian, NCPR

  4. Pete Klein says:

    Religious freedom should begin and end with the individual for the simple reason that everyone believes whatever it is they happen to believe.
    The problem with religious freedom comes when someone tries to force their beliefs on another person.
    Anytime you believe anything, you are claiming to know what you don’t know.
    It is one thing for someone to refuse medical treatment for their self. It is something totally different when they block treatment for someone else. What about your children? Sorry but you don’t own them. They own themselves. You only own yourself.
    Marriage? If you think it is wrong to marry someone of the same sex, then don’t.
    There really isn’t anything to discuss. You can believe in zombies for all I care. Just don’t condemn anyone for not believing what you believe.
    Like Brian says, religious freedom ends at your nose.

  5. The Original Larry says:

    I find it difficult to reconcile the many disparate questions this debate engenders. All of us agree (I hope) that the Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law. This guarantee is supposed to be absolute, but 2nd Amendment rights are regularly limited by state and local governments in ways that would not be tolerated if we were considering the 1st, 4th or 6th amendments. Nobody (again, I hope) would agree to the right to deny people public accommodation based on their race or sexual orientation, but it beggars belief that Bobby Jindal (in today’s NYT) feels comfortable recommending exactly that, so long as it’s done in the name of “religious freedom”. Certainly, children should not die or be mutilated by their parents, but does that only apply after they are born?

    The Constitution is not a smorgasbord where one may pick and choose only those parts one prefers. Either we are all equal under the law or we are not.

  6. bill shaver says:

    in the name of religion…oh please…..letting one suffer a youngster at that when medical treatment is avaiable….criminal…..

  7. Brian Mann says:

    OL –

    Thanks for the thoughts. I want to quibble with the facts of one part of your post.

    There are no “absolute” guarantees built into the 1st, 4th or 6th amendments to our Constitution. There are all kinds of regulations, checks on liberty, and boundaries — state and federal — that have been established for those amendments, most of them tested by the Supreme Court.

    The fourth amendment, to cite one example, is regularly massaged by police departments which conduct sobriety and other forms of traffic stops without probable cause — a process that has survived repeated court challenges.

    Similarly, the first amendment – let’s take freedom of speech as a particular protected right — is regularly circumscribed under state and federal laws governing everything from copyright protections to libel.

    Meanwhile, the courts have regularly found the same for the 2nd amendment dealing with gun rights.

    It is a protected liberty, clearly, but one which is open to regulation and legal boundaries. This is a concept fully supported by even the most conservative legal scholars and Supreme Court Justices.

    –Brian Mann, NCPR

  8. The Original Larry says:

    Sorry my meaning wasn’t clear. I was referring to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which is absolute. I also don’t necessarily agree with all the limitations placed on our rights, especially the 2nd Amendment, which states explicitly that 2nd Amendment rights “shall not be infringed.” If state and local governments treated Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Bd. of Ed. the way they do District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, there would be a revolution, and rightly so. You can’t pick and choose which rights you’re going to limit or ignore. See what I mean?

  9. bill shaver says:

    constitutional amendments & abuse of youngsters to validate religious beliefs…..really weird….where is this going…..

  10. Brian Mann says:

    OL –

    I do see what you mean and I don’t think I agree — based on facts, not ideology.

    The truth is that states across the US aggressively massage their legal and legislative responses to Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Bd of Ed and those actions don’t provoke revolutions – they provoke legal challenges.

    Right now, for example, there is an aggressive campaign in state houses across the US to sharply reduce access to abortion services. Similarly, states have pushed back hard against Federal de-segregation efforts and legal decisions in Federal courts.

    Those efforts are tested in the courts. Sometimes states win, sometimes they lose. But proponents of abortion rights would argue, with some merit, that states aggressively ‘infringe’ upon the rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade on a regular basis.

    I think, based on my research, that it is largely a fiction created by passionate gun rights activists in recent years that the 2nd amendment establishes some sort of pure set of rights that are being violated in a more aggressive way than other parts of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

    I think the regulatory and legal framework surround the 2nd amendment is more or less identical to that surrounding other parts of the founding documents. Scalia, a self-described ‘originalist’ is particularly interesting on this. He suggests that modern limitations on firearm possession should more or less match the limitations that existed when the 2nd amendment was crafted.

    How that is interpreted is tricky, as Scalia acknowledged, but there’s obviously a lot of room for regulation there. Here’s a link to a video clip where he’s interviewed on Fox News.

    The reason this interests me in the context of religious freedom is that it gets at this tension between Freedom with a capital F – an almost libertarian concept – and the freedom that is more nuanced and textured and mediated by law, regulation, and social norms.

    -Brian, NCPR

  11. Walker says:

    “Certainly, children should not die or be mutilated by their parents, but does that only apply after they are born?”

    Actually yes, as I understand it that is the law of the land, at present– life begins at birth. And I’ve seen a fairly persuasive argument that that is the view given in the Bible. In any case, absolute prohibitions against abortion amount at some point to sentencing a woman to an involuntary pregnancy. Hardly the definition of freedom.

  12. The Original Larry says:

    Only in cases of involuntary sexual activity are involuntary pregnancies possible. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand.

  13. Walker says:

    Only not so much for the fathers, eh?

  14. The Original Larry says:

    You want to quote the Bible, Walker? I doubt it. If you remember, it sanctions killing homosexuals. But that’s my point exactly: people like to pick and choose, whether it’s the Bible or the Constitution.

  15. Walker says:

    Right, and stoning brides who turn out to be non-virgins, and eating shellfish and on and on. I only raise the point because those who are anti-abortion are so fond of quoting it.

  16. Walker says:

    “Only in cases of involuntary sexual activity are involuntary pregnancies possible.” Really?! You’ll have to explain the biology of that to me.

  17. The Original Larry says:

    My original thesis is that the 14th Amendment guarantees people equal protection under the law, including all rights guaranteed in the Constitution, but that some of those rights are being violated, in some places more than others, largely because people continue to pick and choose the rights they believe in and value. I don’t think abortion should be legal in some states and not others any more than I believe the same about 2nd Amendment rights. The big difference is that abortion is not a constitutionally guaranteed right.

  18. Walker says:

    That’s like saying that only in cases of involuntary driving are car accidents possible.

  19. You are given a higher degree of religious freedom when it comes to decisions relating to yourself than it does for decisions you make on behalf of those legally not able to make certain key decisions for themselves.

  20. Larry: The right to control your own body is implicit in the Constitution. Without this right, the other rights are moot.

    It’d be like saying, sure you have the right to own and use a gun, but the government can dictate acceptable and unacceptable uses of your fingers. The former “right” is meaningless if the latter is true.

    The oldest, most basic right of western civilization is habeus corpus, dating back to the Magna Carta. It is really just an offshoot of the right to control your own body.

  21. The Original Larry says:

    Don’t misunderstand me: I am trying to understand how some people can be so militant about protecting abortion rights, which aren’t mentioned in the Constitution, while denying ( or limiting) others their 2nd Amendment rights, which are explicitly stated and supported by recent Supreme Court decisions. Seems hypocritical, as does claiming the right to discriminate based on some spurious notion of religious freedom.

  22. Mervel says:

    This is such a mixed up post that it is really hard to respond.

    One minute your talking about abortion, which is for many of us about equal treatment of human beings who are unborn and born, both religious and non- religious individuals oppose abortion for a variety of reasons, then you are going on about denying medical treatments-that I guess has something to do with religious faith-yet you did not mention the largest bunch who deny medical treatment-anti-vaxers, who in general are not doing that for religious grounds, I guess they are good though?

    Then this bizarre discussion about generations of religious women in the US hidden away not allowed to go to school and subjugated for life. Well, they don’t really exist today, there may be a tiny fringe bunch out there that do that, but none of the major religions in the US do that.

    Sexual morality has always been a spiritual concern, but I think your one relevant point is about religion and discrimination in the conduct of commerce.

  23. Brian Mann says:

    Here’s Bobby Jindal’s take on the religious freedom debate. In the New York Times, he’s proposing new legislation that “would prohibit the state from denying a person, company or nonprofit group a license, accreditation, employment or contract — or taking other “adverse action” — based on the person or entity’s religious views on the institution of marriage.” Which, given Louisiana’s history, I assume means that people who of faith who object to interracial marriage or people of faith who believe in marriage between adults and young children will have their freedoms projected as well.

    –Brian, NCPR

  24. Brian Mann says:

    Mervel –

    In my Original Post, I don’t talk about abortion at all. I think the debate over religious freedom is somewhat distinct from the debate over abortion – certainly textures of it fall outside the frame of the questions I’m asking.

    Instead, I posit three behavior that people are currently doing in America based on what they view as a protected religious world view. That is, denying women and girls education and self-determination in their lives, denying same-sex couples equality, and denying children medical care.

    I can’t say with certainty how many people’s lives are affected by these activities. In the case of same-sex marriage, it’s a lot. In the case of girls and young women denied educational and other opportunities because of their parents’ religious beliefs – I think that’s more common than we like to think.

    Regardless, I think my point is clear: When we talk about protecting people’s claims to a religious freedom, we should think carefully about what that means.

    If ‘religious liberty’ means that I can home school a girl and then marry her to a man of my choosing at the age of 15 or 16, I have questions about that.

    If ‘religious liberty’ means denying a law-abiding neighbor equal protections under marriage laws, likewise. If ‘religious liberty’ means that a parent can legally deny a sick child medicine, as Federal law now allows, that’s worth talking about.

    –Brian, NCPR

  25. Mervel says:

    Yeah sorry I was reading your follow up post about abortion.

    I think you are finding very obscure cases and situations. For example when it comes to marrying of children in forced marriages at 15; that is not a protected religious right at all, Warren Jebbs is sitting in prison for the rest of his life for doing just that, marrying 15 year old girls, as he should be. But its a none issue as that kind of activity is already illegal, its not protected.

    I don’t think the issues you are talking about are unique to religion, but more about protected liberties under the constitution. The anti-vaccination crowd for example has likely caused the death and certainly sickness of many children including their own and are causing a general public health crises, they are a large enough group that it is having a national impact, they would outnumber these religious splinter groups. However they are not using religion as the reason for denying their children medical care, but relying on parental rights and our constitution. I believe that the religious exemption for denying health care to children in favor of spiritual healing is very tricky. If we are not going to force the parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids because Jenny McCarthy says they shouldn’t, I don’t think we can force parents who refuse medicine because their faith tells them not to. However there are exceptions and I agree it is a grey area. I agree we need to make sure that religious liberty does not protect illegal activity under the guise of religion.

    But for example, equal protections under marriage law would apply to the state and the individual, not the individual and other individuals who do not wish to participate in a particular religious rite that they disagree with. Marriage for most religions is a religious activity, I think it is a very tricky situation to force me to be part of a religious rite or activity. The direction that this is going that most religious people fear and I think what this is all about, is the invasion of religious beliefs and practices by the state, making a church perform a religious rite it disagrees with, forcing people to be actively part of something they believe is wrong. The tricky part of course is public commerce, on that issue I think those flower guys are probably stuck selling flowers to whoever comes in, it gets grey if they are forced to attend the marriage.

  26. Mr. Kent says:

    I would challenge any one who believes ” religious freedom” includes the practices mentioned in this article to explain to me how how it is any different than ” Sharia Law” Christian style. The fact the State in essence is granting parents the right to use religious doctrine to supersede State and Federal Law regarding parental responsibilities is eerily similar to the practices in the Islamic world. Once you make something legal it is lawful.
    Then I would ask what is NOT a religious belief? What religion was not a cult in it’s beginning and therefore are not all Cults really religious entities ? Charles Manson ? Jim Jones? and on and on and their followers differ how from the Christian Scientists and Evangelicals and all the rest of the religious groups who believe the practices as described in the article are their ” right,” some argue even constitutionally granted I guess, though that was hard to follow.
    No, no and no! The State must be the rule of the land when ever it conflicts with religious doctrine , as long as the State is constructed as ours is- A Democratic Republic.
    You cannot have it both ways. If you do, then the whole point of this great American experiment was lost in my opinion. Who protects the rights and freedoms of the child? How can one parent lose custody of a child for ‘ abuse” and another be lawfully allowed to let a child die in the name of ” God?”

  27. Mr. Kent says:

    Ku Klux Klan members were, and are, all Christians. So excuse me , but being ” men of good faith” of any religion has little significance to me. It does not assume something good or righteous will follow.

    Simply put-Religious freedom is a consideration for many practices, but NEVER in deciding the life or death of a minor or any person except oneself.

  28. Michael Greer says:

    “There once was a time when all people believed in God and the church ruled. This was called the Dark Ages.”

  29. bill shaver says:

    this religious freedom is something people will take out of context for their own agenda….never mind treating people with respect & care…which its what you are supposed to do, no matter what the constitional ammendments say…bar none…if it has to be legslated & not from the heart…well well, it unmasks thoes in the most precarious manner…guilty by their own hand, and they are pulling their mask off for all to see! A child suffering for what ever rewason is one to much…no matter what, do the humanistic thing HELP…NOT HURT….

  30. Two Cents says:

    eagerly waiting for the day all religions die

  31. Ken Hall says:

    As evidenced by what humans are doing to the only habitable planet currently, and for the foreseeable future, available to us and to all other species sharing Spaceship Earth with us via our ravenous consumption of the Earth’s resources and our propensity to make war upon each other so as to gain access to dwindling resources, one would be hard pressed to consider the mantra “HELP…NOT HURT….” to be indicative of doing “the humanistic thing”.

  32. Kathy says:

    “In fact, one cornerstone of the religious liberty these believers embrace is the conviction that women lack the moral and intellectual standing to make their own choices.”

    This statement is painting with a broad brush. Yes, they are out there, but there are extremes in every camp, including the non-religious. Perhaps the word “religion” naturally holds its believers to a higher standard. I get that.

    Now to my point. I fall into “these believers” since I have homeschooled 7 children who continued secondary education and/or employment (RIT, SLU, Clarkson … ). My daughters are not consigned to a lifetime of powerlessness, dependency, or lack the moral and intellectual standing to make their own choices.

    And I’m not alone. But I guess one (or two, or 100) bad apples spoil the whole bunch.

    Additionally, Jimmy Carter is overreaching if he believes the Southern Baptist Convention’s stance on women (which by the way states women are equal before God but with different roles) promotes thinking that will lead women to face the atrocities that are occurring today in other countries. And he believes it will also “cost many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities”? Wow. Pretty extreme.

    (For the record, I am not a Southern Baptist).

    Okay, gotta go digest the rest of the article!

  33. Mervel says:

    Well that is why I think this is a grey issue, Brian is correct about that, even if he does use these obscure examples.

    Consider treatment of a child and protection of a child, well that is the point of those who oppose abortion, that indeed the state has an interest in protecting the life of a child before birth and after birth. So it is not a cut and dry issue. I believe that the state should protect the rights of the most vulnerable, which would be children in many cases (both born and unborn) and that protection should trump the religious freedom of the parents.

    You can call pretty much anything a religion, so we do need to be careful and look at each case. In the end I don’t think it is that big of a deal, it simply is not impacting that many people. Most people in the US are ardently secular, church attendance in the US actually is the same as in Europe, we just answer polls differently.

    The fact is though religion has been and is a part of the fabric of western civilization and part of the United States, and in my opinion it has been the most positive thing about that culture, I know many would disagree and that’s certainly ok I understand that.

  34. Mervel says:

    Kathy I agree, I mean that is the kind of over the top hyperbole I was disagreeing with. In some ways denigrating the choice of some women who do wish to lead a life that includes a more traditional role, is saying that these women do not have the moral or intellectual ability to make any choice, as the choice they have made is not what the secular culture would make. In our family, we have girls, I want them to choose to follow their dreams, and that may include being a wife, mother and homemaker, but it may not. I think many of us; men and women are starting to see the false promises of careerism.

  35. bill shaver says:

    maby we should hear from the Mrs Clinton mystery machine & scoby doo…..

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