BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: This week (May 14) in Wausau, Wisconsin, jury selection began in the trial of a mother charged with reckless homicide. She relied only on God, not a doctor, to heal her sick daughter. The girl died. The mother was a member of a sect that teaches reliance on faith and prayer alone to heal. She was not a Christian Scientist, which does not forbid medical treatment. Christian Scientists are also active in trying to create legislation that balances the state’s duty to protect children with parents’ trust in God. But should there be any exemptions from prosecution because of religious faith? Lucky Severson reports.

Kara Neumann

LUCKY SEVERSON: The 911 call was from Kara Neumann’s mom, by Kara’s bedside at home in Wisconsin.

911 OPERATOR: Just feel by her nose and see if she’s breathing.

LEILANI NEUMANN: Okay. Is she breathing? Is she breathing? Is she breathing?


Ms. NEUMANN: No, she’s not.

SEVERSON: It was too late to save the 11-year-old girl suffering from juvenile diabetes. Dr. Norman Fost, a pediatrician and ethicist at the University of Wisconsin, says her death could have been prevented.

Dr. NORMAN FOST (Pediatrician and Ethicist, University of Wisconsin): Millions of Americans have diabetes, and most children with diabetes are living reasonably normal lives. There are complications later in life, so that life expectancy may be curtailed. But Kara Neumann had many, many decades of happy life ahead of her.

SEVERSON: Dr. Fost says he has seen many kids, like Kara, often suffer and die needlessly because their parents refused to take them to a doctor and instead put their faith in the healing power of prayer. The Neumanns reportedly subscribed to the teachings of Unleavened Bread Ministries, an online religion.

University of Wisconsin religion professor Shawn Peters says there are a surprising number of religious groups that preach faith healing based on a literal interpretation of the Bible and a fervent belief in the power of a loving God. Peters authored a book called “When Prayer Fails.”

Dr. Shawn Peters

Dr. SHAWN PETERS (Professor of Religion, University of Wisconsin and Author, “When Prayer Fails.”): They look to passages from books of the Bible such as the Epistle of James. The fifth chapter of James has this passage that begins, “Are any among you sick?” and then it seems to spell out treatment — and it’s treatment that doesn’t include secular medicine. It’s treatment that includes prayer and anointment with oil.

SEVERSON: In a small, private graveyard in a Portland, Oregon suburb there are at least 75 tombstones of children whose parents belonged to a small church called the Followers of Christ that relied on faith healing in lieu of medical treatment. Russ Briggs left the church after he buried two baby sons in this cemetery.

RUSS BRIGGS: There’s something about holding your child in your arms while it dies. It’s — it’s just — it’s terrible.

SEVERSON: Professor Peters says the cases we hear about are only the tip of the iceberg.

Dr. PETERS: It’s sort of a hidden tragedy in communities that are not part of mainstream America. We just don’t know what’s happening to the kids in those church communities.

SEVERSON: Until 1999, parents of kids buried here were not prosecuted because Oregon law had a religious faith-healing exemption. Oregon closed the exception, but more than 30 states, including Wisconsin, still allow them. But that didn’t stop the district attorney in Wisconsin from charging Kara Neumann’s parents with reckless homicide, and that’s when Joe Farkas with the Christian Science church stepped in. The church helped write the first law, which after the Neumann arrest was viewed as protecting reckless parents. Now the church is proposing new legislation which Farkas says will give children more protection.

JOE FARKAS (Christian Science Church): We never intended it to be in any way perceived as a shield for reckless behavior. So as people very much involved in that law we always had wanted to protect children, and we felt we had to step in with a solution.

SEVERSON: Christian Science may be the largest and best known of all the faith-healing traditions. The church has full-time paid practitioners who pray for the sick. Joe Farkas is one of them. He says healing represents a fundamental connection Christian Scientists have with God.

Joe Farkas

Mr. FARKAS: We expect a good outcome because we’re praying to an all-good God. We don’t believe that suffering is ever the will of God or that someone should die because it’s God’s will. We see that the outcome from successful prayer is always good.

SEVERSON: Farkas says the legislation the church proposes is designed first to protect kids, but it also outlines a number of factors for a jury to consider, including the length of the illness. But Dr. Fost says the proposed changes only serve to protect the parents.

Dr. FOST: So if a child has been ill for a long time, then the prosecutor should say, “Well, let’s see. He/she was ill for a long time. Maybe that gave the parents reason to think that this wasn’t very serious, because she hadn’t died yet.” The point is that there should be no criteria — no special criteria — based on religious beliefs.

SEVERSON: The bottom line, according to Rita Swan, is that the proposed law would actually make it more difficult to prosecute faith healers. Swan is the founder of Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty.

RITA SWAN (Founder, Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty): There is one condition about the child’s age. Well, what does that mean? Does it mean that parents have no legal duty to get medical care for a teenager? The conditions are vague. They’re contradictory. They’re confusing to the jury. There’s no state in the country that has a law like this.

SEVERSON: Joe Farkas insists that the church would never dictate that Christian Science parents shouldn’t seek medical care.

Mr. FARKAS: Our church does not have any strictures against seeking medical treatment, and it also does not shun any of the members that do seek medical attention.

Rita Swan

Mrs. SWAN: I’m not saying that the officials come and threaten you with a gun or with some terrible punishment, but the theology itself says that Christian Science is the only method that really heals disease.

SEVERSON: But Rita’s sixteen-month-old son Matthew died. Matthew had meningitis that was not diagnosed until it was too late and, she says, not until her Christian Scientist practitioner finally told her to go see a doctor under the pretense that Matthew might have a broken bone. Rita and her husband ended up leaving the church, disillusioned about its teachings—the same teaching that continue to inspire Joe Farkas.

Mr. FARKAS: We have studied and read about the healings of Jesus, and Jesus demonstrated that all sorts of illnesses could be healed. I’m not walking on water, but I have seen things that have been quite dramatic, and I have read cases of things that have been dramatic.

SEVERSON: Farkas says he has witnessed his own wife’s dramatic healing.

Mr. FARKAS: The doctor she went back to recommended that she have her uterus removed now. We didn’t have any kids at the time and that was quite a blow to hear that we couldn’t have kids. One night when my wife was praying, a sense of divine love was felt by her and some words came to her consciousness. When she woke up in the morning, she was completely healed.

SEVERSON: Farkas says Christian Scientists love their kids and would never be reckless with their health, but the church is opposed to another law the Wisconsin legislature will also be voting on this session that removes all religious faith-healing exemptions — a law that Rita Swan supports.

Mrs. SWAN: I know in many cases parents are relieved. It takes the moral burden of decision-making off of the parents’ shoulders. They no longer have broken a law of the church.

SEVERSON: Dr. Fost says he would never discourage spiritual healing — that prayer plus medical care is probably better than either one alone. But the law, he says, needs to be there to protect helpless kids.

Norman Fost

Dr. FOST: I don’t think the point is to punish the Neumanns, and I’m not in favor of sending them to jail if they are prosecuted. But I think criminal prosecution is a way of the state saying that we will — we care about our children. We’ll protect them.

Prof. PETERS: There is no criminal intent. I mean, in all of the hundreds of these cases that I have looked at, part of what makes them so tragic is that the parents are doing what they think is best for their children. The punishment that they care about would be the punishment in the hereafter. That is what is significant.

SEVERSON: If convicted the Neumanns could go to jail for 25 years, but faith-healing parents are seldom put behind bars.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWS WEEKLY, I’m Lucky Severson in Madison, Wisconsin.

Faith Healing Court Cases

Some parents rely only on God, not a doctor, to heal their children. As a result, many pass away because they are not diagnosed and do not receive proper treatment. Should there be any exemptions from prosecution because of religious faith?

  • George

    For what it’s worth, just for the sake of accuracy: Kara’s parents never did call 911, it was a friend of the family who did so, not Kara’s mother.

  • marsha cunningham

    Christian Scientists are not afraid of punishment in the hear-after if they were to seek medical treatment. Healing is not a requirement by the church; it is an offering to whoever wants it; the church teaches about effective prayer, but everyone is in a different place with that journey. We should practice with every little thing so that we have confidence for the larger things. If people have been healed and seen others healed and are accustomed to healing with prayer, it is naturally the first line of defense; but no one should be allowed to suffer. If a child’s healing doesn’t take place quickly, then a doctor should be called in; and in the future, parents should be sure to pray the prayer of prevention daily. My brother, sister and I, all over 60 now, were all healed quickly of anything that ever struck in our home and I only missed one day of school. I don’t remember my brother or sister missing any and I never saw my mother sick, or my dad, and he was not a Christian Scientist. My mother got up early every morning and studied the Bible together with Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy, which is like a long sermon of her own Bible study.

  • Lee

    This is isn’t the first that I have heard this story about parents denying medical care to their children and relying on faith in God to help them. This apparently is an old dilemma.

    Not to bring up the past, but this is what I’m sure some of the Jews went through when they relyed on God to protect them from the holocaust.

    When I was young, I used to have nothing but scorn for these people. These people are fools and what not. My friends and I would scoff at them.

    But, I am older and on a completely different spiritual path. I understand them now!

    I too have sought the old kind of simplistic belief system.

    A system, where you would ask for something for as simple as a healing or a wish and a spiritual being would come down, usually as a ball of light, or in human form and grant you your wish or tell you something related to it.

    This too is an old theme, I found it many things, comic books, stories, both modern and old, songs…But clearly, reality is very different.

    And I just can’t accept the notion, well, they’re cut off from mainstream society so they don’t know. There are tons of people walking around who have this simplistic form of faith.

    Various new ages books tout this philosophy of meditation as a form of healing. Other books say, pray to this God or Goddess, use this oil, herb or whatever and you will be healed. And in this modern time, you can find some form of witch doctor who will chant something over you and pedal snake oil and you will feel better.

    This incident is not as isolated as one would like to believe.

    But, like them, I too have tried to believe that there is a benevolent and kind God or Goddess that cares about us and that all we have to do is go to their temple, church, cave, quiet spot on the beach and pray and they will appear or someone will answer us.

    The fact that there is a plethora of old literature; comic books, movies, mythology, religious texts and so on tells me that at one time, there might have been.

    I remember the line in the movie “Lady in the Water.” Where one of the characters is trying to get Paul Gianetti’s character to believe because as he said “I want to believe there is something more out there than this rotten awfulness.”

    My belief system was once based on that….

    but, I have had to learn the hard way. Faith and prayer is not enough! And if there is something out there, he, she or it is so far away and is uncaring.

    I am sorry that children had to die because their parents and me, have been misguided.

  • spiritual_life

    To eliminate the idea of spiritual healing from society, you’re going to have to eliminate the Bible–and Christianity itself–by making them illegal. Or you’re going to have to succeed in reinterpreting them so completely as to eliminate their original meaning. The Neumanns caught some small glint of their original meaning, and were trying to practice it. If they had succeeded in healing their daughter, materialists would have called them liars or said they were deceived. But since they failed, they are called criminals. Some interpretations of the Bible produce better practical results than others. Some interpretations of the Bible are more logical, intelligent, and inspired than others. The Neumanns do not, in any way, subscribe to the teachings of Christian Science, a spiritual theology and practice very different from their own, and which actually has a substantial record of purely spiritual healing. In reviewing the record of Christian Science healing, one can only conclude that it points to a clearer grasp of ancient Christianity than that which is held by other sects holding contrary interpretations of Scripture.

  • Suzanne

    I am a Christian and believe that God gave us Medicine. Prayer works in ALL situations. I also believe that God can heal. The two work hand in hand.

  • Sharon

    Though it was never diagnosed by the medical profession, as a young girl I was apparently healed around 1950 of polio. The epidemic had already taken the life of a neighborhood girl and I was beginning to experience some paralysis. My parents called a Christian Science practitioner for prayerful treatment and the healing was quick and permanent. I continue to live a very full, athletic life.

    When I became aware of a court case against some Christian Science parents somewhere in the 1980s, my immediate thought was, “How criminal it would be to not allow parents the right to choose that form of treatment! My life may have been quite different were it not for Christian Science!”

  • michael

    “We see that the outcome from successful prayer is always good.” But eventually everyone dies. At some point, then, prayer, as they understand it, must fail.

  • Larry

    I am a Christian and formerly practicing medical doctor. The medical system is a government religion. All churches which unquestioningly accept medicine are government churches. Here in Des Moines we have Lutheran, Methodist and Catholic hospitals. See Mark 5.22-43. Kara Neumann was similar to Jairus daughter who had an acute disease. Her death would be an acute exacerbation of a chronic disease–woman with a hemorrhage. Jesus would have been able to heal her. The medical system could only treat her as a chronically ill patient for life-she would have suffered much under many physicians and spend everything she had. I lost medical privileges at Lutheran Hospital for advocating fasting as prayer-they would only recognize fasting as unproven medical therapy and would not consider the spiritual aspects. Some believe Juvenile Diabetes is post-viral autoimmune disease. I believe that fasting can activate bodies own stem cells to form new pancreatic insulin producing cells. Giving these children insulin guarantees this will never happen. Christian Science probably claims to have cases available claiming healing through prayer of this malady. I consider CS to be government church also with its lawyers and tax breaks. This probably relates to negative results for Rita Swan. I know of at least two children who have died of juvenile diabetes in teens with good medical care. One was son of former NBC president Michael Gartner. They would never be put on trial. The medical aphorism would apply–The operation (mainstream medical/religious government approach) was a success, but the patient died. Robert Mendelson, Orhodox Jewish pediatrician and author of Confessions of a Medical Heretic used to testify for defense in these sort of trials. Where are the fathers in Neumann and Swan cases? Jairus was synagogue official who probably faced government/religious disapproval when he sought Jesus help with his daughter. There were plenty of physicians around. It is a tragedy that Kara died and it was unnecessary. It is possible she could have been healed by Jesus/faith/prayer today. He said when I go away, they (my disciples) will fast. Government doctors would prefer to treat us all as patients rather than citizens with rights.

  • Sharon A

    Thousands of children die every year under medical treatment. Are parents prosecuted for those deaths? Wouldn’t we feel it to be a violation of those parents freedom of religion if they were prosecuted for NOT praying and seeking a spiritual solution? Why do we assume that medical solutions are the best and almost the only remedies? You have only to look at the records of medical mis-diagnosis, wrong treatment, and prescription drug related deaths to know that there must be a better way.

  • cherise simms

    The assumption that children treated medically live while those treated prayerfully die is disingenuous in the face of the facts. Children die in hospitals every day in every state of this nation. If a child dies under medical care should we prosecute the parents? Should we shut down hospitals and clinics when a child dies? Obviously this issue is not about children living or dying because if it were modern medicine has a paltry record. I believe the parents should be prosecuted if there has been no treatment or evidence of care. But until the medical establishment can show that children do not die under its care how can you force a parent to place their child with no guarantees it will be healed? How can you prosecute a parent for doing what they believe is best for their child when the option of the medical model has so many child deaths associated with it?

    BTW; I notice that Swan’s child died under medical treatment. She can say she took the child too late but what about the millions of children that are taken immediately and die anyway?

    We need more options to health care not less. Until the perfect system is found where nobody dies, we should not be so arrogant as to call one system better than another and then prosecute one when it fails and not the other.

  • Racine Dews

    Could you now do a study and give a public report on the number of children passing on after receiving medical care?

  • Russell

    God did not give us nor does he advocate medicine in any way. To receive anything of him requires only pure, continuous faith. One that never gives up.If the outcome is not as we ‘wanted’ we truely beleive that it’s part of his purpose. His love will never fail us. Also, he has given us over 3000 promises in the bible and not one of them costs a dime. Nor does his promise of healing. The medical industry is probably the most costly industry in the world. Pure faith in God thru Jesus and his shed blood is the sure path to eternal salvation and every blessing we need here on earth. Praise God!

  • Jamie

    I believe with all of my heart that God can heal sick children. However, with the same thought in mind, I also believe that Satan would love to take my son out!! I am careful to MONITOR my son’s diagnosis of Juvenile Diabetes..I know that God has healed is only a matter of time before it is physically manifested. Each time I take his glucose, and it is “normal” I thank God for the healing. The numbers only serve as confirmation that he is healed, and not validation. Satan does not want anyone to hear his adult testimony (that he is healed completely) so in my neglect..he will TRY to kill him. God will not let Alex fall! Our government and mankind are the ones that do not believe. I have complete faith, and with each is only getting stronger! I would be insane not to take him to the doctor..I know that Jesus is the great physician..also I share this testimony with neighbors..and as usual they believe that he never had the disease after they are aware that his reading was 388 to 450 for 3 months at least. He is responding so well (to my faith). Please don’t believe that God will punish you or your child if they seek medical attention. I pray that God blesses all of the children and parents that pursue faith healing. I would be broken hearted if I lost either of my childen!!

  • eunice

    seeking a medical doctor isn’t bad…nothing will happen. praying that everything goes well with treatment is better than praying with no treatment, however, that doesn’t mean that i don’t believe that children can still be healed by the touch of G-d, He still can, but children or anyone for that matter shouldn’t be put at risk, they should still seek medical help.

  • Bob Johnson

    God was not relied upon to heal her, the Bible was. Her parents were brain-polluted to believe the Bible is the word of God even though it is not. People need to learn how to embrace and use their God-given reason so they will reject the nonsense in the various books claiming to be the word of God, like the Bible and Koran.

    Progress! Bob Johnson