The case of a young Wisconsin girl who died in 2008 from untreated diabetes after her parents opted for prayer rather than medical care is likely headed to the state Supreme Court, say Constitutional experts and others, with the UW-Madison Law School representing the mother in the appellate process.
Dale and Leilani Neumann, of Weston, were charged and found guilty last summer of second-degree reckless homicide after allowing their daughter, 11-year-old Madeline “Kara” Neumann, to slip into a coma.
Although Wisconsin law includes a religious exemption for child abuse and neglect that allows parents to use religion or faith-based rituals as defenses in court, the Neumanns were unable to apply this exemption to their defense. Had they been charged with child abuse and neglect rather than homicide, they could have, with the trial verdicts likely turning out differently.
This inconsistency in the state’s criminal codes -- religion can be argued in defense of some crimes, but not others -- opens the door for the Neumanns to appeal the verdicts in their separate trials. It also puts the case on track to be heard before the state’s highest court, according to Constitutional law professors, child-care advocates, and experts in the field of faith-based healing.
“There is no question the case will go to the state Supreme Court,” says Howard Schweber, a UW-Madison associate professor of political science and legal studies who recently wrote a book on the First Amendment. “The religious exemption exists in one statute of law that could apply to the case. They (the court) have to decide what to do when two statutes are in conflict.”
The fact that the UW-Madison Law School’s Criminal Appeals Project is representing Leilana Neumann, is proof enough for others.
“Their involvement indicates the case is of constitutional significance and will be a test of current law,” says Rita Swan, executive director of Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty, or CHILD, a national advocacy group that aims to protect children from abusive religious and cultural practices. “It is destined for the state Supreme Court.”
Byron Lichstein, the director of the UW Criminal Appeals Project, says the Marathon County Circuit Court appointed the center to represent Leilana Neumann several weeks ago. He says an appeal could be filed at the circuit court of appeals court level, though no paperwork has yet been filed in either. Leilana’s husband, Dale Neumann, will be represented by a separate attorney.
The Criminal Appeals Project handles around 20 cases a year. It takes the cases of those who are recently convicted of crimes, but cannot afford to appeal the verdict.
Marathon County Assistant District Attorney LaMont Jacobson, who prosecuted the Neumann cases, speculates that any appeals could be based on the Neumanns’ rights to due process being violated because of inconsistent state laws.
“Parents don’t know what they can do. If you chose to pray for your child, how do you know when you’ve crossed the line?” Jacobson asks. “If something happens and it is ruled abuse, parents have the shield of religious exemption. The Neumanns didn’t have a shield because they were charged with homicide.”
Lichstein says it is too soon for him to speculate on the grounds for the appeal. “Obviously, because of the subject matter, it is an unusual case,” says Lichstein.
At the conclusion of the trial last summer, the Neumanns were each sentenced to 10 years of probation and six months in jail. Jail time is to be served in intervals of one month per year for six years in order for the parents to continue to care for their three children. Two of the children are under age 18.
Kara Neumann’s death drew national attention and turned a spotlight on the state’s religious exemption laws. Since Kara’s death, the Christian Science Church has pushed to have the religious exemption removed from the child abuse and neglect section of Wisconsin law.
Although the Neumanns are not members of the Christian Science faith, Joe Farkas, the media and legislative liaison for the Christian Science Community in Wisconsin, says the church, which practices faith-based healing, felt obligated to ensure parents in the future would not try to use the religious exemption in their defense.
The push from the church, he says, is due largely to the fact that the Christian Science Church had a hand in including the religious exemption into state law in 1987.
“We wanted to make sure you couldn’t be prosecuted based solely on religion … that prayer couldn’t be the only reason why someone was prosecuted,” says Farkas, following an information hearing on a bill to remove the religious exemption from state law before the Assembly Children and Families Committee Wednesday at the Capitol. “We are fine with pulling that section out.”
He says in pushing for the religious exemption more than 20 years ago, Christian Science felt parents would have enough sense to seek medical care for their children when it became clear the child’s health or well-being was in danger.
Still, Farkas told committee members he was opposed to the bill, which is authored by Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison. Instead he is backing a bill authored by Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, that would not only remove the religious exemption from the child abuse and neglect statute, but add nine affirmative faith-based defenses into numerous sections of state law. This would essentially allow parents to use religion as an excuse for homicide, neglect, and endangering the safety of a child.
When asked how these defenses could be in the best interest of children, as Farkas consistently stated during the hearing, Farkas says the church is in support of Taylor’s bill because it ensures that parents have a chance to express and explain their religious beliefs and practices should these practices land them before a jury: “We want to make sure there is no bias (at the trial).”
Schweber says that if Taylor’s bill were to become law, future cases like the Neumanns’ could easily lead to parents using the religious exemption as a defense for their actions. “It would shield future parents from criminal prosecution,” Schweber says.
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