Faith healer prays over woman in wheelchair in Victoria Square - image courtesy of Martin Upfold, Flickr Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/11fyJXh)

Faith healer prays over woman in a wheelchair in Victoria Square – image courtesy of Martin Upfold, Flickr Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/11fyJXh)

Children are notorious for spreading germs and sickness. But what happens when a seriously ill child’s parents are faith healers who don’t believe in medicine? The answer is, they die.

In 2009, Herbert and Catherine Schaible’s two-year-old son Kent died of pneumonia after being sick for about two weeks. The parents, who failed to seek medical care due to their religious beliefs, were convicted of manslaughter and child endangerment. Rather than slapping them with a prison sentence, the court placed the parents on probation and ordered them to seek medical care in the future if their children needed it.

Predictably, the Schaible’s ignored the court order and now a second son, 18-month old Brandon, has also died in circumstances that Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore described as “eerily similar.” The couple has been charged with third-degree murder and, according to The Associated Press, could face up to 14 years or more in prison if convicted.

The Schaible’s are members of the fundamentalist First Century Gospel Church in Philadelphia, PA. Articles on the church’s website claim that purchasing any type of insurance “is against the principles of Bible teaching and practice.” Sermons for download focus on the topics such as the evils of Halloween and Gambling, and ironically, the danger of false teachers.

One sermon titled, “Healing – From God or Medicine?”, uses a litany of verses purportedly forbidding Christians from using medicine.

“A minister who claims to teach from the Bible, but goes to a hospital for medical help, is not trusting God in faith on the Blood sacrifice of His Son. The minister’s decision reveals his serious lack of faith,” the preacher proclaims in the aforementioned sermon. “To preach that Jesus came to save us, but not to heal us, is false teaching—and we are to watch out for false prophets.”

One can’t help but wonder if First Century Gospel Church’s pastor is himself the kind of false prophet he warns against. After all, the congregation and its mother church, Faith Tabernacle Congregation, have been responsible for the deaths of at least 22 children.

Though most Christians presumably eschew the Schaible’s theological views regarding medical care, some will attempt to defend them on the grounds of religious freedom. But Shawn Francis Peters, author of When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law and University of Wisconsin professor, says this argument will not stand.

“Throughout history, there have always been limits placed on religious liberty and all our constitutional freedoms. The courts have never given people unlimited religious freedoms,” he told me. “They’ve always balanced it with public order, the rights of minor children, and other things.”

Peters says this case won’t likely set judicial precedence because of the murky laws in many states governing whether parents can use religious practices in lieu of medicine and the sympathy typically extended by courts to misguided parents who seemingly love their children.

But when asked if the Schaibles should go to jail, he offers and unequivocal yes: “They were clearly warned not to let this happen again. It may be uncomfortable to enforce the law against people who seem sincere, but I think that they have to go to jail.”

Sadly, however, Peters says their imprisonment won’t solve the problem.

“Lots of people, like the Schaibles, don’t care about the law. They are going to do what they believe is right regardless, so putting them in jail won’t deter future offenders and it hasn’t historically,” he says. “And when someone thinks that the State is some sort of extension of the Antichrist, then penalizing someone like them can actually reinforce your ideas. It won’t cause you to reflect.”

Peters says that since people won’t be coerced with the law in these matters, other congregations and community leaders must begin engaging those who hold these sorts of views and help guide them in reconciling their convictions with medical science. Civic dialogue and education seems to be at least a partial answer to addressing these matters in the long term, but that doesn’t settle the case before us.

The fact remains that the Schaible’s beliefs directly resulted in the death of not one, but two children. People who misapply the Bible at their own detriment is one thing, but endangering a child is another matter altogether. The Schaibles need to go to jail, and so should any other misguided faith healer whose beliefs result in another’s death. As I’ve said before, the ocean of religious liberty must stop at the shore of child welfare. Faith healers who endanger children should be placed on alert: You can believe whatever you wish, but if those beliefs result in the death of a child, you will go to jail.

9 Comments

  1. Jonathan, I can’t comment on the case you write on but on the broader issue of religious liberty I have a question: Isn’t religious liberty a civic virtue and not a biblical one? I tend to lean toward the former, which is why a civil society can place limits on it.

    And on the professor’s point about needing to hold even sincere people accountable under the law, that happens all the time in my courtroom. People who thought they were doing the right thing still can be held accountable in civil, criminal, or family law cases for their actions. Otherwise the sincerity-exception would swallow the rule of law.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    P.S. Your headline reminded me of a faith healer a church invited to our college town years ago. I went to a session held for the public. That guy did some of the best cold-reading of audience members I’ve ever seen. Lots of shills for the taking there. What a con!

  2. Found this article extremely interesting, but very sad that children are dying as a result of their parents so called ‘faith’. As a matter of interest, what are your thoughts on the likes of Jehova’s Witnesses who do not allow blood transfusions?? How does this work in the USA. I live in Ireland, and in the case of a child, it would be more likely up to the courts to decide(usually in favour) of allowing a blood transfusion. I’m afraid, even though l am a Christian, Anglican,
    l can find no reason why any parent would let their child die owing to lack of medical treatment. I’m sure our Lord never would have let this sort of thing happen. Where do people get these weird ideas from. Blessings. Patty.

  3. Including those like Michelle Bachmann’s psychologist husband and others who pull in lots and lots of money from medical claims in their phony attempts to use religion to change homosexuals into heterosexuals.

  4. RELIGION IS THE OPIATE OF THE PEOPLE.-Karl Marx. No truer words have been spoken. Religion at least the religion practiced by most Americans wants to tell me what to believe, how to believe, and why to believe. They, and only they, have the truth. If you deviate in the slightest from THEIR ordered beliefs, or dare to question, you are labeled as a heretic, sinner or infidel. I have learned one important thing in life and that is this: Life is not simple and the questions or answers to it do not come simply either. But, I’ve felt for a very long time now that a good questioning of your faith every now and then is a very good thing. Without questioning why, how, and what I believeI can become very lazy in my theology and fall for something cultish or such. That is what has happened to these parents. Wonder if they now are saying that it will be their faith that will keep them out of jail? No, they were not and are not persecuted Christians. They are parents that deliberately watched as not one but two children died simply because they thought their faith and knowledge was greater than yours or mine. Did not the same God that created the child not create doctors as well? Why, then, were doctors not created if we were not meant to use them from time to time? I cannot sympathize with these parents and 3rd degree murder is too light a charge. Remember, they agreed to the terms of their probabation after their 1st childs death and essentially told the court thatt i they would seek treatment if another child got sick. So, they committed a sin by lying to the court and multiplied that lie even further by not seeking treatment for their second child. They, of course, do not even acknowledge this truth that they lied in the first place to the court. Obviously, like some of you I am having trouble dealing withh these childrens deaths and how needless and senseless these deaths were. I simply cannot comphrend how in 2013 some people still have such magical thinking as to believe the crap these parents church was preaching. Nor, how some people could follow or believe hucksters such as Benny Hinn. I, myself, want to go fully atheist but cannot take myself that far mainly because I have seen some very powerful and spiritual things in my life as well. But, when confronted with a story such as this, I just cannot comphrend what it must take to NOT save your child. and want to run screaming into the hills!!!

  5. I’m so glad you wrote on this, Jonathan. Didn’t Philip Yancey’s father die because his fundamentalist church elders insisted that he should ‘trust God’ and not the iron lung after polio took away his ability to breathe on his own? It’s one thing for an adult to make such a decision–awful as it is for their families and those who love them–but, as you say, quite another to involve a child in such things. I can’t believe these parents have done it twice, and it seems such a horror, such a slap in the face to parents in places like Malawi who CAN’T access health care for their children, to make healing purely a matter of ‘faith,’ as if the parents of kids who die from malaria simply didn’t pray hard enough.

    • Jonathan Merritt

      Rachel,

      I don’t know about Yancey’s dad but now I’ll track it down. Interesting. And I agree about it being a slap in the face to people in places where disease is more rampant. I hadn’t thought of that angle.

      Jm

  6. This is not well reasoned at all. A child dies when the parents neglect to seek medical help (for religious reasons) and it is the faith healer who caused it? Sorry there are intervening causes. The faith healer cannot be the **proximate** cause of any outcome when parents, doctors, neighbors … others .. have equal or greater accountability. Even today there is no GUARANTEE that an M.D. will succeed in every case. So it is impossible to prove that the disease would not have won no matter who helped (or treated) the child. It’s fun to BLAME huh? .. to avoid responsibility. (and shift it to something else).

  7. Anyone, faith healers, misguided parents, who refuse medical attention from there children and that child dies as a result of their actions should be ‘charged’ with child endangerment, manslaughter, and jail.!!!

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