Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



Criminal liability of parents who treat their children's illnesses through spiritual means or prayer alone is the subject of increasing debate. When children die as a result of their parents' religious practices, prosecutions for crimes such as felony child endangerment, manslaughter, and murder may follow. Most states have codified some type of religious accommodation statute which provides a criminal liability exemption for parents who engage in spiritual healing or prayer treatment for their sick children instead of seeking traditional medical assistance. The scope, purpose, and language of these statutes, however, vary." Even when statutes appear to be similar in content, courts have disagreed on the correct interpretation and applicability of the liability exemptions. A primary problem facing courts in these cases is how to interpret the language in the statute and whether two or more statutes involved in a case should be construed together in defining criminal behavior. Moreover, defendants in accommodation statute cases have forced courts to decide several constitutional issues dealing with the Establishment Clause, the Due Process Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and the First Amendment freedom of religion.

While the other concerns implicated by these statutes are significant, this Note will focus on the issues of statutory construction, freedom of religion, and the notice requirement of due process. Part II discusses the legal background of religion's role in the law. Part III describes two cases, one from California and the other from Florida, that illustrate the debate over the conviction of parents who rely on similar prayer exemption provisions as criminal defenses. Part IV analyzes the reasoning utilized by both courts in reaching their holdings and examines the ramifications of each holding. Part V concludes that religious accommodation statutes should not protect parents from criminal prosecutions for the death of or serious bodily harm to their children.