Friday, April 18, 2008

Religious Freedoms Tested In America

America, the freest nation on earth when it comes to religion, is facing a test of religious freedom in two spectacular cases, One in Texas, where underage girls are married off and one in Oregon, where a small child died from lack of medical treatment.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, in part,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Respective States have similar words in their State Constitutions, establishing free practice of religion. That free practice is currently being tested where it appears that freedom of worship has run afoul of states laws.

Earlier in April, Texas Police raided a ranch outside of El Dorado owned and inhabited by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a spin off of the Mormon Church. The FDS believes in and practices polygamy, allegedly marrying off young girls below the legal age in Texas to older men.

The raid culminated in over 400 women and children being taken away from the sect, all remaining in state custody as the legal battles begin. It is alleged that a girl as young as 13 may have given birth at the ranch.

In Oregon, a 15 month-old girl died due to her parents, members of the Followers of Christ religion, a spin off of the Pentecostal movement, prayed over their daughter instead of seeking medical attention for the child. Their Church believes only in faith healing and avoids medical help.

In both cases, “Freedom of Religion” is being brought up in defense of the charges.

From Texas, one supporter wrote, “He is only trying to live . . . his religion,” regarding another members union with a below legal age girl. Another asks,
Why should a man be thrown into prison for living his religion while society will forgive the former president of the United States of immoral acts while in the office of President?”

An accused from the Texas sect says,
Maybe our legislators have cunningly laid a snare to catch the innocent just because they believe in an unpopular religion. So it was on the days of Jesus Christ. So it was in the days of Joseph Smith. So it was in the Days of Warren Jeffs,”
convicted last year of being an accomplice to rape for arranging a marriage between an unwilling 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old first cousin.

From Oregon, Raylene and Carl Worthington pled not guilty in the death of their 15 month-old daughter and are fighting back through their attorneys. John Neidig, defense attorney for Raylene challenged the basis for the criminal charges against his client. Neidig said,
Ava Worthington's medical condition might have been treatable, but not necessarily curable in conventional medical terms.”
Ava died of untreated bacterial pneumonia and a blood infection.

Neidig added,
the Worthington’s had used several faith-healing methods, ‘prayer and anointment and the laying on of hands,’ to treat their daughter.”
His defense is slated to include exhaustive research into the legal history of religious protections and a team of experts, investigators, and other professionals.

A web site has been set up for the defense of the couple and where attorneys have listed Oregon’s Constitutional Protections for free exercise of religion as well as the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

A state child welfare worker says that the Worthington’s have cooperated with state authorities regarding their 4-year-old daughter and have complied with her directive to get a medical check-up for the girl, who was found in good health and remains in the custody of the couple.

In both cases the respective states have laws against the conduct of the religious groups, Texas having a minimum age of 16 for a girl to marry and Oregon’s 1999 law specifically designed to remove the defense of religion when a child dies due to lack of basic medical attention.

In both cases, members knowingly violated those laws, falling back on their religious beliefs, one costing a baby it’s life.

Both cases allege the abuse of children.

Both cases seem destined for spectacular court drama as the limits of religious freedom will be tested, even though in different states.

Yet, reading news accounts, the Oregon case seems to draw much more sympathy for the parents who allowed their child to die than for the older men in Texas who impregnate under-age girls, who they claim as their wives.

Attorney Neidig says of his clients, “They’ve been called upon by God to face this challenge.” Claiming the case to have “monumental consequences,” Neidig also said, “We’re on a slippery slope here if we start eroding away the free expression of religion.”

To this writer, the “slippery slope” seems to be continuing to allow harm to others and hiding behind freedom of religion to justify it. With all of the various religious beliefs in the United States, could acquittal in these cases under the guise of freedom of religious beliefs, lead to tolerance of Islamic Sharia Law, where, under more radical interpretations, a young girl may be stoned to death if raped, because it embarrasses her family?


UPDATE: An excellent article addressing faith and legal issues by Shawn Francis Peters for the Wausau Daily Herald. Law ill-equipped for faith healing cases


Shawn Francis Peters said...

As you mentioned, the Worthingtons might face an uphill climb, legally Oregon law (which was specifically revised with their church in mind) seems pretty clear on this, and I'm not sure that a straight First Amendment claim is going to fly. (In the past, in analogous cases, it really hasn't.)

LewWaters said...

Thanks for commenting, Shawn. You have an intersting blogsite too, very nice.

I don't lay claim to a Legal background, but the thought of religious freedom harming others, specifically children, does trouble me. My own belifs wouldn't allow me to bring harm to children, including over disciplining them.

Somehow, we must have a line that protects both people's religious freedoms and the children too. Smarter people than I will have to write that one.

Both of these cases will be worth watching, bearing in mind the far reaching consequences of both.

A bit off topic, but I find it curious that many want a strict interpretation of the First Amendment, but not of the Second Amendment.