MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A couple who prayed while their daughter slowly died of diabetes will try Tuesday to persuade the state Supreme Court to overturn their homicide convictions, arguing state law protects them from prosecution.
The case presents charged questions for the court about where religious freedom ends. The justices for the first time will have to weigh whether the state’s faith-healing exemptions protect parents from criminal liability if their choices lead to a child’s death.
The Wisconsin case revolves around Dale and Leilani Neumann, of Weston, a Wausau suburb in the central section of the state.
The couple’s 11-year-old daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, whom the family called Kara, fell ill in March 2008. Believing the girl was under spiritual attack, the family prayed over her. She died Easter Sunday of an undiagnosed but treatable form of diabetes.
Marathon County prosecutors charged the couple with second-degree reckless homicide. Separate juries convicted both of them in 2009. They were sentenced to serve one month in jail each year for six years, with one parent serving a month every March and the other serving a month in September. The judge also ordered each to serve 10 years on probation.
At least 18 states have laws that provide parents with some form of legal protection if they choose to try to heal their children through prayer rather than medical science. States have been wrestling for years with how far those exemptions reach.
Minnesota’s Supreme Court, for example, faced a case similar to Wisconsin’s 20 years ago. That state’s statutes protected parents who treated children through prayer from child neglect charges. Parents of a child who died of diabetes were charged with manslaughter after they prayed but didn’t seek medical help. They argued it was unclear when prayer became illegal. The Supreme Court sided with the parents in 1991.
California’s Supreme Court handed down a ruling three years earlier that concluded the mother of a child who died of meningitis after getting prayer treatment rather than medical attention could be charged with manslaughter and felony child endangerment even though the mother argued state statues protected her. A parent’s right to rely only on prayer doesn’t extend to situations where a child’s health is seriously jeopardized, the court ruled then.
At the heart of the Wisconsin case is a clause in state’s statutes that protect people from child abuse charges if they provide spiritual treatment for a child rather than medical help. The Neumanns’ attorneys contend Wisconsin’s statutes don’t say when a situation becomes so serious that prayer healing leaves parents open to criminal charges.
“People are supposed to be able to know when their conduct becomes illegal,” Leilani Neumann’s appellate attorney, Byron Lichstein, said in a telephone interview. “How do you know when you’ve moved beyond that?”
Dale Neumann’s attorney, Steven Miller, didn’t immediately return messages Monday.
State Justice Department attorneys counter the prayer-healing exemption doesn’t apply when a parent creates the risk of death and the child actually dies. The state’s homicide statutes then apply and they provide no prayer-treatment exemption, they said.
“(The Legislature) was willing to accommodate prayer-treating parents even if their children suffered great bodily harm, but not if their children died,” Assistant Attorney General Maura Whelan wrote in a reply brief. “At that point, the state’s police power interest in protecting the lives of all the state’s children trumps some parents’ interest in relying on prayer alone.”
Whelan went on to argue that Dale and Leilani Neumann knew their decision to withhold medical treatment had created an unreasonable risk of death, noting they sent out a mass email the night before Kara died telling others she was in poor shape and knew the girl had stopped talking, collapsed in the bathroom, turned blue and lapsed into a coma.
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