MADISON, Wis. — A mother and father who prayed instead of seeking medical help as their daughter died were properly convicted of homicide, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a decision that dramatically limits legal immunity for parents who turn to God rather than science to heal their children.
The decision marks the first time a Wisconsin court has addressed criminal culpability in a prayer treatment case where a child died. The court ruled 6-1 that the state's immunity provisions for prayer treatment parents protect them from child abuse charges but nothing else, opening the door to a host of other counts.
"No one reading the treatment-through-prayer provision should expect protection from criminal liability under any other statute," Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote for the majority.
Most states, including Wisconsin, created exemptions from child abuse charges for prayer-healing parents in the 1970s to meet federal requirements.
At least 303 children have died since 1975 after medical care was withheld on religious grounds, according to Rita Swan, director of the Iowa-based advocacy group Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty. Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska and North Carolina have taken their exemptions off the books, Swan said.
The Wisconsin case revolves around an 11-year-old girl named Madeline Kara Neumann, known as Kara to family and friends. She died of undiagnosed diabetes on Easter Sunday in March 2008 at her home in Weston, a central Wisconsin village about 140 miles north of Madison.
Kara, who had been growing weak for several weeks leading up to her death, eventually became too sick to speak, eat, drink or walk. Her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, don't belong to any organized religion or church but identify themselves as Pentecostal Christians and believe visiting a doctor is akin to worshipping an idol, the Supreme Court opinion said.
As Kara's condition worsened, her parents resisted suggestions from her grandmother to take her to a doctor. Kara's grandfather suggested giving her Pedialyte, a supplement used to combat dehydration in children, but Leilani Neumann said that would take the glory away from God.
Dale Neumann testified that the possibility of death never entered their minds. After the girl died, Leilani Neumann told police God would raise Kara from the dead.
Doctors testified that Kara would have had a good chance of survival if she had received medical care before she stopped breathing.
Separate juries convicted the couple of second-degree reckless homicide in 2009. They faced up to 25 years in prison, but a judge instead ordered them to serve a month in jail every year for six years, with one parent serving every March and the other every September.
The couple's attorneys argued the immunity clause in Wisconsin's child abuse statutes protects parents from criminal liability through the point of creating a substantial risk of death. The reckless homicide statute says whoever creates a substantial risk of death is guilty of the charge. The attorneys contended the similar language makes it difficult to know when a situation has become so serious that parents who stay with prayer healing become criminally liable.
State attorneys said parents have a legal duty to seek care once they realize a child could die.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court found no ambiguity exists in state statutes.
"If the legislature intended a treatment-through-prayer provision to apply across the board to all criminal statutes, the legislature could have used different language or placed a treatment-through-prayer provision ... with other defenses to criminal liability," Abrahamson wrote.
Justice David Prosser, the lone dissenter, maintained it wasn't clear Kara was in danger of dying and insisted state law is murky on prayer treatment immunity.
"Failing to acknowledge these deficiencies will not advance the long-term administration of justice," Prosser said.
A spokeswoman for the state Justice Department, which defended the convictions, declined to comment.
Dale Neumann's attorney, Steven L. Miller, said the ruling effectively eliminates legal immunity for prayer treatment.
"If I was advising a parent on faith healing, I'd say there is no privilege," Miller said. "They pretty much gutted it."
A spokesman for the Christian Science church, a religious group that embraces faith healing, had no immediate comment.
Norm Fost, a professor of pediatrics and director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's bioethics program, said it's unfortunate the Supreme Court didn't strike down the exemption completely. Still, he said the ruling sends a message that sticking with prayer treatment when children are obviously seriously ill can result in prosecution.
"The only recourse to deter families from behaving this way is prosecution," said Fost, who consults on child abuse cases and has tracked religious exemptions. "The state cannot tolerate decisions like this that result in serious disability or death of a child."
Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, plans to introduce a bill eliminating the exemption. A similar measure from Berceau in 2009 never got a vote.
"It is a parent's responsibility to ensure the health of their children and, as this case so tragically demonstrates, to set aside their own personal convictions in order to save the life of their child," Berceau said in a statement.