Tennessee legislature repeals religious defense for parents who hurt their children by withholding medical care

We have two pieces of good news today from the American South—both from Tennessee. One refers to the subject of reports in The Tennesseean and the Knoxville News Sentinel: the Tennessee legislature has repealed a state law that gives parents exemptions from hurting their children by withholding medical care in favor of faith healing. As do many states, Tennessee has such an exemption on the books, though it’s a felony crime to hurt your kids if you don’t have a religious motivation. As The Tennessean reported previously,

It is a crime in Tennessee to fail to provide medical care to children, with an exception, known as the Spiritual Treatment Exemption Act, for parents who want to rely on “spiritual means through prayer alone,” according to state code. State Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, filed SB 1761 to repeal the exception.

The current code reads: “Nothing in this part shall be construed to mean a child is abused, neglected, or endangered, or abused, neglected or endangered in an aggravated manner, for the sole reason the child is being provided treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone, in accordance with the tenets or practices of a recognized church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner of the recognized church or religious denomination, in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.”

The bill applies to treatments and does not apply to vaccinations, although that may come up in the course of debate, Briggs said.

A Republican! How unexpected!

These laws are not uncommon. They were originally put in place by the states in 1974 as a result of a new federal policy mandating that states would not receive government money to prevent child abuse unless they also enacted laws allowing these religious exemptions. That was unconscionable and, in fact, the requirement was rescinded in 1983. But in many states the laws remained on the books. As a result, many children died, and still die, from religiously-based medical neglect; and their parents are either let off the hook or given only a slap on the wrist. As always, as with vaccination—47 of the 50 states allow religious exemption from getting children vaccinated before attending public school—religion gets an exemption that endangers people’s lives.

The exemption laws were buttressed in 1983. As the estimable organization Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty (CHILD) notes,

In 1996, however, Congress enacted a law stating that the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) did not include “a Federal requirement that a parent or guardian provide a child any medical service or treatment against the religious beliefs of the parent or guardian.” [42 USC 5106i] Furthermore, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, and Congressman Bill Goodling, R-Pennsylvania, claimed during floor discussion that parents have a First Amendment right to withhold medical care from children.

Unbelievable! And Bill Clinton signed that law! But the results stand: in most places if you injure or kill your child because you deem conventional medical care contrary to your religion, you don’t get punished. As I noted in my Slate piece a year ago, “Faith healing kills children,”

Forty-eight states—all except West Virginia and Mississippi—allow religious exemptions from vaccination. (California would be the third exception if its bill becomes law.) A similar deference to religion applies to all medical care for children. As the National District Attorneys Association reports [JAC: link no longer works, and I can’t find the document, so go here], 43 states give some kind of criminal or civil immunity to parents who injure their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds.

Well, make that 42 now, for six days ago the Tennessee House concurred with the state Senate in repealing the noxious Spiritual Treatment Exemption Act. As the News Sentinel reports:

The repeal bill, Senate Bill 1761, is sponsored by Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, a cardiac surgeon, and Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, a lawyer. It won unanimous Senate approval in March and an 85-1 vote Thursday in the House and now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam, who’s expected to sign it into law.

. . . Briggs and Farmer introduced the bill this year in an attempt to repeal the exemption. Briggs cited his experience with a similar case years ago, when he was a general surgeon in another state and a teen boy was brought to see him with a ruptured appendix. His parents initially opposed surgery on religious grounds but later agreed to treatment.

The bill was backed by a Kentucky-based group, Children’s Healthcare Is Legal Duty (CHILD), that works for repeal of similar spiritual treatment exemptions across the country. Its President Rita Swan issued a statement thanking lawmakers for repealing the exemption in Tennessee.

Rita Swan is a hero, and has been recognized as such by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (they also filed a brief in the Tennessee case), which gave Swan its Lifetime Achievement Award. Swan and her husband, once Christian Scientists, let their son Matthew die of meningitis in 1977 because they were obeying the no-doctors tenet of their faith. Since then, Swan, horrified at what she did, founded CHILD and has worked tirelessly to get these religious laws overturned. But progress is slow.

I’m hoping now that a Southern state has removed its medical-exemption laws (or will when the governor signs the bill, as he surely will), other states will follow suit. It’s absolutely unbelievable that over 80% of American states allow parents to injure their children—children too young to enact their own decisions—by favoring religious healing over treatment that works. To me, this is one of the most noxious and injurious results of America’s privileging of religion. It kills people! Can any person, even a Regressive liberal, be in favor of those laws?

If you’re an American, it’s likely that your state has such exemptions (see the CHILD list to check). Do what you can to repeal them, and, if you can, donate money to CHILD, which is fighting the good fight.

And now—on to vaccination.!

Here are the states with religious exemptions (from CHILD); click to enlarge:



  1. GBJames
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Good for Tennessee!

  2. Christopher Bonds
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    At least two surprises on the map: Washington and Nebraska.

    • rickflick
      Posted April 20, 2016 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Washington, a liberal state on many issues (For example they allow physician assisted dying) has pockets of religious cults. That could explain why the state is colored black – “Allows religious exemptions for negligent homicide, manslaughter, or capitol murder.”

      • eric
        Posted April 20, 2016 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        The notion of the exemption is fairly libertarian to begin with, so it’s not too surprising (IMO) to see the states that are very liberal supporting them. This is probably one of those political topics on which the two ends of the spectrum join up to attack the middle.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 21, 2016 at 2:44 am | Permalink

        “Allows religious exemptions for negligent homicide, manslaughter, or capitol murder.”

        Capitol murder, of course, being defined as the murder of elected officials within the precincts of the state house of assembly.



        • rickflick
          Posted April 21, 2016 at 6:43 am | Permalink

          The capitol building? There’s some justice in that.

          • Posted April 21, 2016 at 11:16 am | Permalink

            I was thinking the same thing, e.g., “Oh, Capital murder! That’s the murder of someone at (inside) the Capital, huh? Now, it makes sense!”

            • Posted April 21, 2016 at 11:17 am | Permalink

              Oops: Pardon any misspellings.

              • rickflick
                Posted April 21, 2016 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

                Mipssellings are a capitol offence.

                “A capital murder (U.S.) is any murder that makes the perpetrator eligible for the death penalty.”

              • Posted April 21, 2016 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

                Oh. The wrong definition was funnier. Death — by death penalty — not so much. Thank you for clarifying, though. I should have known that. I’d just forgotten. Honest, the other was somehow so fun to consider!

              • Posted April 21, 2016 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

                Good pun, by the way: “capitol offense.” 🙂

              • rickflick
                Posted April 21, 2016 at 9:22 pm | Permalink


  3. Christopher Bonds
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    How can a state allow a religious exemption for capital murder? If you claim God told you to kill your son or daughter and you do it, that’s a defense? Unbelievable if so.

    • Posted April 20, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      The text that so many of the US adores has the precedent (as it were) for that, after all. (Remember Abraham and Isaac?)

      • Christopher Bonds
        Posted April 20, 2016 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

        That story was what came to my mind as well, but I foolishly thought we have moved beyond that.

  4. Alpha Neil
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Wait a second, the only two states that do NOT allow religious exemption from vaccination are WV and MS? These are strange times indeed.

    • tomh
      Posted April 20, 2016 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      For vaccinations, Mississippi should be a model for all states. They are #1 in vaccination rates for kids and it’s not even close. In 2014, 99.7 percent of the state’s kindergartners were fully vaccinated and the state makes vaccines available to all, regardless of income, race, or location. There are no religious exemptions, vaccinations are required for all children planning to attend public or private schools, and medical exemptions are allowed only when the local health officer determines that the exemption would not cause undue risk to the community. In 1994 Mississippi expanded their vaccination policy to include infants and toddlers, where again they lead the nation in rates.

      These laws were largely a result of one man’s efforts, the head of the state’s Department of Health, Alton Cobb, who made vaccination accessibility a top priority, and held his post for 20 years, from 1973 to 1993. Of course, the state’s powerful religious conservatives have made many attempts to weaken the mandate, but, so far, it stands.

    • eric
      Posted April 20, 2016 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      The US has a mixed history with mandatory vaccination; it’s never really been the entire law of the land. We mandate vaccination for immigrants seeking a green card, and for military personnel. We’ve mandated smallpox* and I believe (but could be wrong about) polio vaccination in the past. However AFAIK the modern sequence of vaccines that started in the ’50s has never been truly mandatory. So it’s not too surprising that most states have exemptions. That’s just the way we’ve always done it.

      *Incidentally, smallpox was the origin of the “need it to go to public school” rule, but at the time and place that policy was first adopted, public school attendance was mandatory, so it amounted to a mandatory vaccination for all children. We have since then kept the school requirement but have forgotten the whole reason why that was chosen as a distribution rule – because doing so essentially made child vaccination mandatory.

      • Posted April 20, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        give that the US has a history of experimenting on it’s citizens, it’s not surprising people don’t trust medical or government anything

        military, prisons and unsuspecting small towns

        and vulnerable demographic groups of purposeful infections

        In a way, I am surprised that the doctors of the era got over their racism to exploit Henrietta Lacks

        • Posted April 20, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

          However, I wouldn’t want my baby to get measles because some people around me decide not to trust medical or government anything.

          • Posted April 20, 2016 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

            yes, herd immunity only works when the herd is maintained. 🙂 religion is mental illness and should not be a get out of reality legal excuse for using prayer instead of medicine.

    • Derek Freyberg
      Posted April 20, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      As of last year, California also does not allow religious (or “philosophical”) objections to vaccination. The only exemption is medical.

  5. Craw
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Am I missing something? This looks like one piece of good news, the repeal of the “Abraham can kill Isaac” exemption. What’s the other?

    • eric
      Posted April 20, 2016 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      That took me a second too. The second item of good news is FFRF giving Rita Swan the lifetime achievement award (at least, IMO).

      • Posted April 20, 2016 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        Nope. See Jerry’s next post.


        • Posted April 20, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

          PS. Not that Swan’s award isn’t good news!


        • eric
          Posted April 20, 2016 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

          Ah, that explains it! A two-post reference.

  6. Posted April 20, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    As a resident of the state of TN, I’m somewhat optimistic that with education can come change.

  7. Posted April 20, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    religion – commanding you to breed and then kill your children….

    bad meme

    another religious harm that puts ideas over people

  8. Heather Hastie
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Once again we have people who want to give a zygote personhood status being perfectly fine with actual children suffering and dying needlessly. If only the so-called pro-life people would put their efforts into supporting an organization like CHILD.

  9. Kevin
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    This feels more like a slow win. My preference is no death, child or adult, from ignorance guided by faith. However, part of me is restricted to consider what the religious generally think.

    Proposition 1: A ban against religious exemptions can be frightening to the religious even if that ban is likely to prevent deaths.


    Proposition 2: In contrast, not banning religious exemptions but having more lives needlessly lost will more likely cause discomfort among the religious.

    I predict that the later, in the short term, would cause more people to not only question their faith, but leave religion altogether.

    • eric
      Posted April 20, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, but it’s not the state’s job or goal to have people leave religion. Its the state’s goal to have less children die. So the clearly superior choice as far as the state is concerned should be the former.

      • jeffery
        Posted April 20, 2016 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        The problem with proposition #2 is this: these types of fundamentalist believers are pretty much immune to the mental process of, “Oh- the evidence shows that this isn’t working; guess I’ll try something different.” The “hits” (“successful” faith healings) will be remembered, the “misses” forgotten, minimized, or ignored. They can always say that the prayers of the parents were not sincere enough, or fall back on those old saws of, “Jesus must have needed him in Heaven” or the one that automatically rejects all attempts at examination of the facts: “Who can fathom the purposes of God?”

        • Posted April 21, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          On the other hand,

          Sinclair: They say God works in mysterious ways.
          Garibaldi: Maybe so. But he’s a con man compared to the Vorlon.

  10. Posted April 20, 2016 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Could it be that the tide is finally turning? And, if so, what does it mean for Ted Cruz’s evangelical (more like Dominionist) crusade to take over the White House (and then the world)?

    Stay tuned…

  11. jeffery
    Posted April 20, 2016 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Proof positive that the TeaOP is schizophrenic: they try to make the Bible the state book, then turn around and do this….

    My suspicions are that there’s got to be something to do with Federal money in all of this for it to happen- I can’t see Repubs being concerned enough for others’ well-being to do it, “out of the blue”, out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s possible the pharmaceutical companies had a little talk with the legislators…..

  12. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 21, 2016 at 2:53 am | Permalink

    I disagree. Much as I dislike Republican policies in general, it would be absurd to conclude that there cannot be such a thing as an intelligent Republican.

    I note that two Republican governors have just vetoed bills that would make the Bible the ‘official State book’.
    or see the next post on WEIT


    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 21, 2016 at 2:54 am | Permalink

      That was disagreement with Jeffery at #11, of course.


    • GBJames
      Posted April 21, 2016 at 7:14 am | Permalink

      The vetos are appropriate but the reason given for his veto by Tennessee’s governor, that “the bill trivializes the Bible”, argues against the intelligent Republican hypothesis.

  13. steve
    Posted April 21, 2016 at 4:49 am | Permalink

    The founder of CHILD’s story about meningitis has a current parallel on trial in Alberta Canada right now:



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