Advancing bill changes TN ‘spiritual treatment’ law

Tennessee lawmakers are moving to repeal a controversial 1994 law that was at the center of a long court fight over the 2002 death of a Loudon County child whose mother refused medical care in favor of “spiritual treatment” and prayer.

Further from Richard Locker:

Without debate, the Senate last week approved 32-0 a bill by Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, a cardiac surgeon, to repeal the “spiritual treatment” exemption to the state’s child abuse and neglect statute. The House Criminal Justice Committee is scheduled to consider the bill Wednesday. It’s sponsored in the House by Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, a lawyer, and won easy approval last week in the criminal justice subcommittee.

The provision was intended to provide a shield from prosecution for child abuse or neglect if “the child is being provided 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 of the recognized church or religious denomination, in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.”

The exemption … came into play less than a decade later in the highly publicized death of Jessica Crank, 15, of Loudon County. Her mother Jacqueline Crank was a follower of Ariel Ben Sherman, who conducted religious services under the name of the Universal Life Church in a rented house in Lenoir City.

…After the medical providers notified police, Jessica was removed from her mother by state and local authorities in late June and taken to a Knoxville hospital where she was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. But the cancer was too far along and she died Sept. 15, 2002.

Sherman and Jacqueline Crank were both indicted in April 2003 on child neglect charges. A long legal fight ensued, both were eventually convicted after courts ruled that Sherman’s group was not a “recognized church or denomination” covered by the exemption.

Sherman died during appeals. But the mother’s conviction was finally upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court in February 2015, in a ruling that also held the spiritual treatment exemption is not so vague as to render it unconstitutional, as Crank had argued.

For Briggs, R-Knoxville, repealing the exemption is personal given his profession as a medical doctor and surgeon. In about 1979, when he was a general surgeon working in another state, a boy about 14 was brought to see him with a ruptured appendix. His parents initially opposed surgery on religious grounds.

…”So it was a personal thing with me that I’ve never forgotten,” he said.