Monday, May 5, 2008

Faith healing in an electronic age

Now that the Marathon County District Attorney, Jill Falstad, has charged them with second-degree reckless homicide, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge of Dale and Leilani Neumann, the Weston, Wisconsin, couple whose 11-year old daughter, Kara, died on Easter Sunday. Thanks to the public release of portions of the police investigation into the Neumanns’ activities in the days leading up to Kara’s death, we know more about how their intense religious beliefs led them to eschew medical treatment and turn to prayer.

One particularly interesting aspect of the police reports is what they reveal about how Christian religious healing traditions have adapted to the electronic age. Like most devout individuals who turn to prayer to treat illness, the Neumanns took their cue in part from a passage in the Epistle of James that says of those confronted with illness: “They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (5: 13-15). The Wisconsin couple apparently followed this admonition by turning to the information superhighway.

Among the materials publicly release this week were email messages exchanged between the Neumanns and individuals connected with Unleavened Bread Ministries, an internet-based ministry interested in exploring, as its Web site explains, “end-time revelations for America and the world.” On March 22, 2008, a day death before Kara’s death, Dale Neumann apparently sent an urgent email to obtain the telephone number of David Eells, the ministry’s leader. The subject of line of the email reflected the Neumanns’ mounting sense of urgency: “Help our daughter needs emergency prayer!!!!” The body of the message indicated that the couple sought from Eells “agreement in prayer over our youngest daughter, who is very weak and pale at the moment with hardly any strength.”

In a subsequent public statement, Eels revealed the extent of his communications with the couple, and was quick to downplay his influence over them. “Dale and Leilani Neumann from Wisconsin contacted one of our elders to ask that I (David Eells) call them to pray for their daughter. That elder got in touch with me Saturday evening and I called the Neumanns,” Eells wrote. “To my knowledge this was the first time I had spoken to them other than by a few emails over the last few years and posting a testimony on our site from their ministry. It has been reported that they are ‘under’ our ministry but they have had their own coffee house ministry for a few years in which they share the Gospel and we are glad of their work in The Lord.”

Eels has disavowed exerting much influence over the Neumanns, but he has highlighted their concern for their daughter and fervently endorsed their approach to healing. In his statement, Eels asserted: “They seem to be a very loving family who want to walk in the steps of Jesus, as do we. When I called they shared concern for their daughter, Kara, who had started getting sick in just the last day or so (not as is reported for the last 30 days). They asked me to pray and agree with them in prayer, basically because she appeared pale and listless (not a quote). They did not seem overly concerned because they had had healings before. This is not an unusual kind of request to us. I and our elders and prayer ministers are used to praying for the sick and have seen many healed by our Lord.”

Also disclosed in the police reports was the text of an email from Bill Rowe, who has been identified separately as the moderator of Unleavened Bread’s online Bible study. Responding to the Neumanns’ earlier request for emergency prayer for Kara, Rowe offered a detailed prayer that referenced several passages from the Christian scriptures, including the oft-quoted section of James. “We add our faith to Dale’s and Leilani’s and command Kara to be healed,” he wrote. “We command that spirit of infirmity to loose Kara now, leave her body, leave her home, and go back from where it came and stay there.” Rowe closed by noting: “The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working.”

As the prosecution progresses, it seems likely that the Neumanns and their supporters will continue to rely on the internet – this time to drum up support (and perhaps financial backing) for their defense. Unleavened Bread Ministries already has established a Web site ( devoted to touting both the legal and spiritual justifications for the couple’s actions. “This family had every right, by law and by Biblical principle, to pray for a healing and not seek medical attention. That is not murder,” the site asserts. “They loved their daughter and were only seeking to do as God teaches in His word. God tells us by faith we are healed.”

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Due process of law and the Neumann case

On Monday, Marathon County District Attorney Jill Falstad made one of the toughest decisions of her professional life. Appearing before a throng of reporters in Wausau, she announced that her office would be charging Dale and Leilani Neumann with second-degree reckless homicide for their roles in the death of their daughter, Kara, an eleven-year old who had succumbed to diabetic ketoacidosis on Easter Sunday. The Neumanns had committed that crime, Falstad asserted, by treating the girl’s grave condition with prayer rather than the medicine almost certainly would saved her life.

Thus ended weeks of speculation regarding the Neumanns’ legal fate. As many observers had pointed out, Falstad might have faced significant hurdles in court if she had chosen to charge the couple under Wisconsin’s child abuse statute, which contains a provision that seems to specifically shield from prosecution parents who address their children’s illnesses or injuries with “treatment through prayer.” In other states, similar stipulations have completely derailed criminal prosecutions of devoutly religious parents like the Neumanns. Faced with that potential barrier, Falstad turned to the state’s second-degree reckless homicide statute, which merely requires her to show that the couple “recklessly cause[d] the death” of their daughter. (If found guilty of that charge, they face up to 25 years in prison and fines up to $100,000.)

It would be premature, however, to say that the basic legal issues in the Neumann case have been resolved. If anything, in fact, they promise to get still more complicated, in part because courts in Wisconsin appear to have never ruled in a similar case involving faith healing, children, and the law.

The Neumanns might argue in court that the charges violate their right – protected by both the state and federal constitutions – to freely practice their religion. If comparable cases in other states can serve as any guide, this claim is unlikely to give them much legal traction: in cases stretching back to the late 19th century, a variety of courts have held that an individual’s right to religious liberty is not absolute, and that it can be outweighed by the state’s interest in protecting others or maintaining public order. In cases involving children and faith healing, courts generally have found that the state’s interest in protecting the welfare of children is paramount.

A much more promising line of defense for the Neumanns might spring from the concept of “due process of law,” which is guaranteed by the Fifth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. They could argue that, in effect, Wisconsin’s laws are too confusing for the average layperson to understand because one part of the criminal code (the child abuse statute) appears to explicitly protect spiritual healing practices while another (the second-degree reckless homicide law) does not. Which measure were they supposed to follow? And in which circumstances?

Unlike the religious liberty argument, this claim has proven effective in several other states, including Minnesota. In 1990, prosecutors there tried a similar end-run around a religious-healing exemption, and three different courts (the trial court, the state court of appeals, and the state supreme court) ruled against them. The courts held that that the laws “provided ‘inexplicably contradictory’ definitions of prohibited behavior so as to violate due process requirements,” as one of the judicial opinions issued in the case put it. Because it’s from another state, the precedent in that case (State v. McKown) isn’t directly applicable in Wisconsin, but it almost certainly will be referenced by the Neumanns as courts here try to untangle the legal issues in their case. So too will be a similar case from Florida known as State v. Hermanson.

But this due process argument is by no means an air-tight defense for the Neumanns. Courts in other jurisdictions, most notably California, have rejected it. The rulings in these cases have found that there is no real conflict between the potentially applicable statutes, and that an average person would not be confused by them.

Although these legal matters remain cloudy, one thing seems certain: the Neumann case will not be resolved quickly. And, given the profound legal and ethical issues involved, perhaps that’s a good thing.