Washington State’s Unconscionable, Unconstitutional Child Protection Law

recently wrote about the conflict between child protection and the religious freedom of believers in faith healing. That issue has reared its ugly head again in the state of Washington.

Washington law currently denies the children of Christian Scientists equal protection under the law governing child abuse and neglect, and it grants a special exemption from criminal prosecution for abuse and neglect to that one specific religion and not to any others. Even if you supported religious exemptions in principle, there would be no excuse for the preferential treatment of one single religion. This law is clearly unconstitutional.

Zachery Swezey didn’t need to die

This law was challenged in the Swezey case. Zachery Swezey was 17 when he died in Spokane, Washington of a ruptured appendix in March 2009. He received no medical treatment because his family belonged to the Church of the First Born, a faith-healing sect that has been responsible for a number of other avoidable deaths of children. See here for links to several of those cases. With medical care, Zachery would almost certainly be alive today. Appendicitis is one of the things conventional medicine is very good at treating; patients rarely die from it anymore; reported death rates are only a fraction of 1%.

Zachery’s parents were tried for manslaughter. The defense argued that the law exempted one faith-healing religion (Christian Science) from prosecution, and there was no rational basis for denying another faith-healing religion (Church of the First Born) the same exemption. The judge ruled that the law had a rational basis because Christian Science practitioners are licensed by the state and required to report child abuse and neglect. The judge was demonstrably wrong. Practitioners are not licensed or accredited by the state and they are not on the state’s list of mandated reporters. There was a hung jury on the manslaughter charges. The parents agreed to a plea deal to avoid jail on the other charges. They will not appeal, so there will be no formal challenge to the law’s constitutionality.

Proposed bill

State Senate bill 6295 was introduced by Sen. Mark Mullet (D) and three other Democratic senators on January 20, 2013, and was referred to the Committee on Human Services and Corrections. Its progress can be followed here.

It proposes to amend RCW 9A.42.005 and3 26.44.020; and to re-enact and amend RCW 26.44.030. The laws were enacted to protect children and dependent persons from abuse and neglect by requiring reporting of abuse and neglect and imposing criminal penalties on those found guilty of such abuse or neglect. The new bill strikes out these sections:

It is the intent of the legislature that a person who, in good faith, is furnished Christian Science treatment by a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner in lieu of medical care is not considered deprived of medically necessary health care or abandoned.


A person who is being furnished Christian Science treatment by a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner will not be considered, for that reason alone, a neglected person for the purposes of this chapter.

It adds this section:

Cultural and religious child-rearing practices and beliefs that differ from general community standards do not, in and of themselves, create a duty to report under this section unless there is reasonable cause to believe the practices and beliefs pose a danger to the child’s health, welfare, or safety.

The language being struck out was not even in the original bill as passed by the House and Senate, but was added by a conference committee (6 people charged with reconciling differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill) and was never debated but simply accepted pro forma.

How could anyone object to a state child protection law that requires all parents to provide medical care for seriously ill children? It should be a no-brainer. I wrote to my state senator, Bruce Dammeier (R), asking him to co-sponsor the bill, since bipartisan support would increase its chance of passing. I received no answer, and the bill was introduced with no Republican co-sponsors.

Religious shield laws that exempt members of faith-healing sects from child protection laws and from criminal prosecution for child neglect and manslaughter must be repealed. Adults have the right to reject treatment for themselves, but society has a duty to protect children from parents who would withhold lifesaving treatment and allow their children to die unnecessarily. Society’s duty is widely recognized. Just to give one example, it has long been common practice for courts to intervene and mandate lifesaving blood transfusions for the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses whose religious beliefs prohibit them.

Which way Washington?

It remains to be seen if Washington will go the way of its neighbor Oregon or its other neighbor Idaho. Oregon repealed its religious exemptions; the death rate among faith-healing sects promptly dropped, and parents have since been successfully prosecuted for manslaughter. Idaho maintains its exemptions; its cemeteries are filling up with the graves of children who died without medical care, and the parents are not being prosecuted.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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