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June 18, 1997-- “Only six more days until my birthday! Wow! I can’t believe I’m going to be seventeen finally! Even though I’m excited, I wish I could start feeling better. I’m not really too sick, but I still am a little scared. In my heart, I wish I could go see a doctor, but I know that I could never tell my mom and dad that. Even if they heard me say it, they still wouldn’t listen to me, no matter how sick I was. I know I’m supposed to have faith that God will heal me, but right now I’m so afraid. I can’t die now. There is too much stuff I still want to do; I have so many hopes and dreams for my future...”
Shannon Nixon never lived to see her 17th birthday. On June 21, 1997, only three days before her birthday, Shannon went into a diabetic coma and died shortly after. In all her life, she had never been to a hospital, seen the inside of an ambulance or even visited her local doctor’s office. Even at birth, she was delivered without the aid of a doctor or nurse. Shannon’s parents refused to seek medical help for her or any of their other nine children. Her parents are members of the Faith Tabernacle Church, where all the members solely believe in the power of faith healing (Dowell).
Faith healing is defined by Webster as a method of treating diseases by prayer and exercise of faith in God. The members of the Faith Tabernacle church, as well as many other groups in the United States including the Christian Scientists and the Followers of Christ, believe that the right and power to heal is solely God’s. “Like many fellow Pentecostals, the Followers believe the Bible prescribes prayer and the laying on of hands to cure physical ills. Unlike most, however, Followers reportedly refuse medical treatment-- for themselves or for their children” (Biema). The Followers believe that any medicine or doctoral attention is putting faith in people instead of God. Whether it’s something as minor as a mere finger cut, or as dangerously deadly as diabetes or leukemia, the family refuses to seek medical contact or attention. This belief has been around since Biblical times. James 5:14 says, “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord (NIV).
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"Faith Healing: How Many More Children Will Die ?." 123HelpMe.com. 16 Feb 2020
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There are many people who strongly disagree with this practice. They believe that God does heal but that he works through other things such as medicine and doctors. God gave people a mind to think clearly and use common sense. He gave doctors and scientists intelligent brains to discover new medical practices and medicines. People believe that rejecting medical attention isn’t faith, it’s plain stupidity and ignorance. However, no matter how strongly people feel against this practice, there isn’t much they can do about it. The major argument here is where does the government belong in this issue? Do government officials have the right to intercede on behalf of children whose needs are being neglected?
To begin looking into this subject, several points must first be considered. The first of which is the case of child abuse or neglect. Dr. Seth Asser stated, “You can’t beat, sexually abuse or starve your kids, but the law allows a parent to refuse medical care in favor of magic. This is not just a social phenomenon, but a public-health issue” (Robinson). Although that is an accurate statement, and according to him, faith healing is child abuse, there are certain laws protecting the practices of faith healing families that exceed the child welfare laws.
In 1974, every state was required by the US. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to add clauses about religious healing process into their child abuse and neglect legislations. According to studies, forty of these states complied with this clause. The other ten, however, lost their federal child abuse protection grants. “According to this clause, parents who choose prayer in place of medical care for a sick or injured child cannot be prosecuted in those jurisdictions” (Robinson). Even though this federal regulation no longer exists, all but four of the original forty states still have it written into their books. Since the healing practice is recognized by many laws, the parents can plead faith healing, and the government would have no evidence to hold against the couple.
Another point is the fact that children are minors. As a result of that, their parents have full authority over them. The only time this is not true is when both parents have been found unsuitable for care of their children. Unsuitable of care can consist of many scenarios including mental instability, child abuse and child neglect. In most of these cases, the child or children are removed from the home and placed under foster care, or the custody of the state. So, according to that, does faith healing fall under the category of child neglect?
Child neglect is defined as lack of sufficient or proper care, negligence, or disregard (New World Dictionary). According to this definition, a parent who fails to supply the proper care for their child is guilty of neglect. The way one defines sufficient and proper care is determined by how one feels on this subject. In the eyes of parents who believe in faith healing, they are only doing what they believe God commands them to do. To them, it’s not a case of neglect, but rather the practice of their faith. They believe the sufficient and proper care for their children is done through prayer, and to them that is enough.
Another convincing point is the statistical evidence. Studies show that “four out of every five sick U.S. children who died after their parents put their trust in faith healing could probably have survived if medical treatment had been sought” (Reuters). This study also found that out of the 172 child deaths researched, 140 of them would have had a 90% chance of completely being healed. Also, “eighteen of these deaths would have had better than a fifty percent chance of living with treatment” (Reuters). Statistics are hard to argue against.
The hardest question to answer in all of this is: how far can the government get involved? If government did get involved, would that be a violation of a parent’s freedom of religion? Since this is a conflict between one religious group and government officials, some see government involvement as a direct violation to the first amendment. The first amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (U.S. Constitution). According to this amendment, groups such as the Christian Scientists are free to practice their religion any way they choose, and government has no place interfering with them. Steven McFarland, however, states “the First Amendment protects religious belief absolutely, but not religious practice. Child welfare is a classic example... if irreparable harm to a child is about to occur, the state’s duty to protect the child trumps” (Biema).
According to McFarland, the practice of faith healing is not covered under the first amendment since it is technically the practice of the religion, not just a belief. If that’s the case, where will government draw the line in interfering with religious practice? Take for example, the tradition of lighting the Menorah for the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. Research shows that the occurrence of candle fires is increasing dramatically in numbers. One such study found that “candle deaths increased 750 percent from 1980 (20 deaths) to 1998 (170 deaths)” (Wolfson). The families who participate in this tradition don’t expect there to be any harm caused by the candles, let alone death. However, it still happens. Should the government make a law banning the use of candles for religious traditions because of the increase in deaths attributed to it? In the same way, parents who believe in faith healing, don’t truly think that their children will die. They honestly believe they have the child's best interests at heart. How can the government punish them for that?
This problem is not easily remedied. On one side, some think that choosing to leave faith healers alone is cold hearted and inhumane to children. On the other side, people strongly feel that any attempt to change this practice is a direct violation of the first amendment. This does not only affect the families, but also the churches they belong to. The church can’t stop practicing faith healing because it is a major part of their belief system. However, they can’t afford to keep practicing it because of all the law suits and court cases. They would go bankrupt very quickly. The only reasonable solution is a compromise. One author thinks that possibly the “church could urge their members to seek medical attention for certain medical problems that are both life threatening, and curable by medical science... they may justify this departure from their traditional healing methods, on financial grounds” (Robinson). There is a possibility of reaching that compromise sometime in the
future, but for now things will remain unsettled.
In trial, Shannon's parents were obviously devastated by their loss. However, “their faith was unshaken: it was God’s will to take Shannon” (Dowell). June 21, 1997: I feel so weak. Mom and Dad still have their faith, but I am quickly loosing mine. Now I think I know what my brother must have felt like when he died... I don’t want to die...
Biema, David Van. “Faith or Healing?” TIME. 31 August 2002. 68-69.
Dowell, William. “Her Dying Prayers.” TIME. 5 May 2003. 66.
Reuters. “Study finds faith healing causes needless deaths.” Pediatrics.
4 June 1998. 7 Dec. 2004.
Robinson, B.A. “Freedom to Choose Faith Healing.” 11 Nov. 2001. 7 Dec. 2004.
“State, church clash over faith healing beliefs.” Beloit Daily News. 7 Dec. 2004.
Wolfson, Scott. “CPSC Releases New Report on Residential Fires Latest data show record number of fatalities from candle fires.” U.S. Consumer Product
Safety Commission. 21 June 2001. 14 Dec. 2004.