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Legal expert: Religious freedom does not justify child abuse

Thursday, January 5, 2017 17:22
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Minneapolis, Minn., Jan 5, 2017 / 04:49 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Two Minnesota parents are facing charges of child neglect after they prayed over their severely ill son rather than seeking medical attention just prior to the child’s death. 

A criminal complaint says the couple, Sarah Johnson, 38, and Timothy Johnson, 39, found their son Seth, 7, unresponsive and covered in vomit one morning in March 2015. 

The parents told authorities they had decided to pray over Seth and treat him with vitamins and honey the night before his death rather than call 911 because they had “issues with doctors.”

The Johnsons said in social media postings that have since been deleted that they relied on their strong faith to overcome their son’s death, according to local news reports. 

But should the Johnson’s attempt to use a religious freedom defense in court, it almost certainly will fail, a legal counselor told CNA. 

“No religious freedom statute or law has ever been successfully used in that way,” said Kellie Fiedorek, who serves as legal counsel for the group Alliance Defending Freedom. 

“First of all, both child abuse and domestic abuse are both crimes, and those who engage in that kind of behavior will be prosecuted,” Fiedorek said. 

“And secondly, the government has a well-documented compelling interest in ensuring that children are safe and protected…so that will always supersede any religious teaching or religious belief or any kind of belief that would try to allow that kind of abuse or contact to happen,” she added. 

Religious freedom jurisprudence considers the government’s “compelling interest” as one of several factors in determining if the right to religious liberty is being exercised properly or abused.

Autopsy reports state that the child was suffering from numerous medical ailments including open sores and bruises all over his body. According to court documents, in the weeks leading up to his death, Seth had stopped sleeping, took hours to eat meals, and would occasionally shake and throw himself down the stairs. His cause of death was listed as pancreatitis and possible sepsis.

Seth first joined the family as a foster child at the age of 3, and was adopted by the Johnson’s when he was 4. Prior medical records showed that Seth was a healthy and “thriving” child with no pre-existing conditions. 

In a statement, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said despite a yearlong investigation, Seth’s illness and death could not be linked to the actions or inactions of the Johnsons. 

Therefore, the highest possible charge authorities were able to bring against the Johnsons was one charge each of child neglect resulting in substantive bodily harm, which would result in a gross misdemeanor. 


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