Sunday, February 15, 2015

Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Spiritual Healing Exemption Interpreted Narrowly

In State of Tennessee v. Crank, (TN Sup. Ct.,Feb. 13, 2015), the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence to 1-year probation of Jacqueline Crank, a member of the Universal Life Church, who was indicted for child neglect based upon her failure to obtain medical treatment for her daughter.  Her daughter died at age 15 of a rare form of cancer.  Crank argued for acquittal based on Tennessee's "spiritual treatment" statute, TN Code Ann.39-15-402(c), that prevents prosecution of parents who "provide[] treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone in accordance with the tenets or practices of a recognized church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner thereof in lieu of medical or surgical treatment." The trial court however held that the Universal Life Church did not qualify as a "recognized church or religious denomination."  Crank appealed arguing that the exemption is unconstitutionally vague, and violates the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses.  The Tennessee Supreme Court rejected the vagueness argument, holding:
Viewed in context, it is apparent that the legislative intent was for the exemption to apply to members of religious bodies which, like the Church of Christian Science, are established institutions with doctrines or customs that authorize healers within the church to perform spiritual treatment via prayer in lieu of medical care. Because the exemption is effectively limited to members of religious groups that closely resemble the Christian Science Church, the terms at issue are not so vague that the scope of the exemption “cannot be ascertained.”
Then, addressing Crank's argument that the exemption narrowed in this way violates the Establishment Clause and Equal Protection Clause, the Supreme Court said it need not decide that question because, even if Crank is correct, this would lead to elision of the entire spiritual treatment exemption from the child neglect statute. The Court issued a press release and summary of the decision. AP reports on the decision.