Southern Religion

When faith’s dictates result in a child’s death: Redrawing the legal line

From tragedy comes a likely landmark legal conflict. Kara Neumann, 11, died of treatable juvenile diabetes after her Wausau, Wisconsin, parents chose to pray for her recovery rather than take her to a doctor. Now they’re facing criminal charges which may redraw the line of church/state separation.

Dirk Johnson of the International Herald Tribune wrote:

Kara Neumann

Kara Neumann

About a month after Kara’s death last March, the Marathon County state attorney, Jill Falstad, brought charges of reckless endangerment against her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann. Despite the Neumanns’ claim that the charges violated their constitutional right to religious freedom, Judge Vincent Howard of Marathon County Circuit Court ordered Leilani Neumann to stand trial on May 14, and Dale Neumann on June 23. If convicted, each faces up to 25 years in prison.

Kara’s parents beliefs are clear. Click here to read a testimonial by Kara’s mother, Leilani, on

For believers and nonbelievers alike, the debate is inescapable and it whipsaws across the legal and ideological landscape.

Those who defend the Neumanns see the legal action itself as an unacceptable intrusion on religious liberty.

At David Eells writes:

Neumanns defend your rights now, very soon when Christians refuse the microchip in their hand and forehead and are not able to pay for meds or doctors they will have to trust God. However, then they will be deemed negligent and their children taken away, just as the prophets have seen. You who know what Revelation 13:15-17 means, think about this. Read the laws carefully.

Among those who have read the laws carefully and come to a different conclusion is Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc., which describes itself as,”a non-profit national membership organization established in 1983 to protect children from abusive religious and cultural practices, especially religion-based medical neglect. CHILD opposes religious exemptions from duties of care for children.”

Yet CHILD treats the religious issues involved with respect, for example addressing religious attitudes on corporal punishment from a Biblical perspective.

The extreme opposite view from the Neumanns and their defenders in this debate is instead well-represented by Pharyngula, who argues for the legal establishment of a new principle:

Prayer doesn’t work. Enshrine it in the law — prayer is not a helpful action, but rather a neglectful one. Teach it in the schools — when the health class instructs students in how to make a tourniquet or do CPR, also explain that prayer is not an option. Faith in prayer kills people.

The quiet question at the legal core of the intense issues raised is well-explained at Get Religion, where tmatt writes:

The question is where courts draw the line on religious freedom, especially in limiting the rights of parents. As a rule, the limits are defined in terms of fraud, profit and clear threat to life.

But what is a clear threat? That’s the issue. Is practicing Christian Science or being a Jehovah’s Witness a clear threat? Courts tend to say no, especially since those groups tend to have good lawyers. The big question is what to do in precisely this kind of case.

This case does promise to begin rewriting the definitions of the law in ways that make it easier to bring legal force to bear on believers like the Neumanns.

That’s unfortunate, because as you can see the case is awash in distracting emotional intensity, and thus what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was talking about when he said “bad cases make bad law.”

What outcome is the right outcome?


The police report is here [.pdf].


January 26, 2009 - Posted by | Crime, Religion | , , ,


  1. This is something I do not understand. The bible allows for medical treatment. Luke, author of the gospel “Luke,” was a physician.

    Comment by Marianne | January 26, 2009

  2. I say judge not before the Lord comes, as the scripture says.

    BTW, we need to examine the Greek word for physician with reference to Luke and others scriptures; we’ll see it is talking more about a healer than what we call a doctor today. Jesus referred to himself as a healer (physician) too – same Greek word.

    Jesus said “Be it unto you according to your faith” If folks feel like they need to go to a doctor, then they need to go. All the promises of God are based on faith; as Mark 11:24 says whatever we pray for believing we have received them, we shall have them. Jesus rebuke His disciples for their unbelief – are we any better than they? They walked with the Lord and still had to battle unbelief. It does happen, so we need to examine ourselves and ask God for help, not blame Him if we don’t get our prayers answered.

    We are all striving for more faith. There are some things I have more faith for than others. Does my faith change God’s promises? No.

    Should we really judge someone for genuinely believing that “By his stripes, ye were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Someone who is trying to stand on the Word of God and not waiver? If there truly is malice, God will work this out – but I really doubt there was any malice or ill-intent with Neumanns. The Lord had healed their daughter many times before.

    I believe that we really need to be careful about judging, especially Christians judging others, because we’ve been given grace to believe. Jesus said judge not lest you be judged; He also said if we do judge, let it be a righteous judgment. These seem to contradict, but the Word of God doesn’t contradict; we just need to seek the “Sum of thy Word” and we will see the spirit of the letter come alive concerning judging.

    Most Christians are under the curse because they are judging others. We are not supposed to be under the curse (Galatians 3:13).

    I think we need to examine ourselves before throwing the Neumann’s and others like them to the lions, as MANY have done already when this story came out last year (not talking about this forum, but others).

    Considering the times were are in, what are we going to do when we don’t have access to doctors and medicine? For me, by the grace of God, I hope that I will have the faith to believe and trust God for my healing.

    Comment by Kevin | January 26, 2009

  3. […] age 11, died last March of treatable juvenile diabetes after her Wausau, Wisconsin, parents chose to pray for her recovery rather than take her to a doctor. Her parents face criminal charges. Cornell law professor Sherry […]

    Pingback by How does the law respond when religious faith leads to the reckless homicide of a child? « BaptistPlanet | February 8, 2009

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