What Price Religious “Freedom”?

The state of Oregon stands poised to end a dangerous practice. If a bill that has passed both the House and Senate becomes law, parents who allow their sick children to die after refusing them medical care on religious grounds would no longer be granted prosecutorial immunity. Passing this bill sends an important message: Parents who harm their children for religious reasons should be punished just as severely as parents who harm their children when religion is not a factor.

Unfortunately, however, legislators and the courts still frequently maintain a double standard when it comes to deciding the fates of abusive and neglectful parents, depending on whether that harm is perpetrated in the name of faith. For example, if a woman neglects to feed her child because she is strung out on drugs, she will likely be prosecuted. But if that denial is part of a religious fast, the law usually has no problem with it.

In applying this double standard, proponents often proclaim that religious liberty is at stake. I, myself, am a big believer in religious freedom. No one should be told what, or what not, to believe. What’s more, people should never be prohibited from carrying out religious rituals that aren’t hurting anybody. But, as I note in my book Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment (p. 35),

There are times when the teaching and practice of religion crosses a line that should not be crossed—a line that the United States Supreme Court drew back in 1944. In Prince v. Massachusetts, the Court states, “The right to practice religion freely does not include the liberty to expose the community or child . . . to ill health or death.

yenitza colichon

Yenitza Colichon in Court

In one religious child maltreatment case, a mother apparently ignored that directive. On May 23, 2011, Yenitza Colichon, 33, pleaded guilty in a Pennsylvania court to cruelty and neglect of a child after she made her 7-year-old daughter participate in terrifying, bloody rituals. Those rituals—said to be part of the Palo Mayombe religion which originated in Africa—included the decapitation of a goat and the sacrifice of a chicken, after which the girl was fed its heart. The child also had a religious symbol scratched into her skin. (Colichon was sentenced to 18 months probation.)

The law found out about the abuses after the girl told a teacher she was having nightmares and did not feel she could talk to her mother about it. State Division of Youth and Family Services investigators who searched the home where the rituals had taken place found dolls, a shrine, religious statues, bones, machetes, and bundles of sticks bearing numbers and names. Some of the items had blood and animal hair on them.

Was this mother crazy? No, just religious. According to prosecutors, Colichon wanted her daughter to undergo the rites as a way to protect her. Colichon was about to attend Army basic training and claimed that the girl would be kept safe in her mother’s absence by going through the rituals, because then her daughter would have been initiated into the woman’s faith. What’s more, others participated in the abuse; Colichon had arranged for a Palo Mayombe couple to perform the rites. (The couple was put on probation for one year.)

But here is a particularly chilling aspect of this case: Colichon’s lawyer tried to convince a judge that Colichon had a legal right to have her daughter participate in the rituals since they were part of the woman’s religion. According to NorthJersey.com,

Attorney Joseph Manzo of Rockaway unsuccessfully argued before Portelli during a pre-trial motion in January to dismiss child-endangerment charges against Colichon because her freedom of religion protects her from prosecution. Manzo argued that other religious rituals — such as Jewish circumcision — might be considered unsafe, bloody or gruesome, yet are not subject to prosecution. The initiation ritual at issue is as necessary to the faith as a Catholic baptism, he said.

Putting forth this argument, Colichon’s attorney seemed to be saying that, since other adults in other religions are allowed to harm their children, Colichon should also be allowed that “right.” But while the judge didn’t buy Manzo’s argument, other cases have turned out much differently. For instance,

  • As the attorney indicated, male infants and boys the world over are genitally cut for religious reasons. (In Breaking Their Will, I explain that the procedure is painful, potentially dangerous, and almost always medically unnecessary.)
  • In another child abuse casein which the victim was whipped to death—a defense attorney felt the need to state that the seven hours of physical punishment the child endured was interspersed with prayer.
  • Based on a 1972 Supreme Court ruling, the Amish are permitted to take their children out of school after the eighth grade, based on the claim that schooling interferes with Amish religious practices and beliefs. While this might serve the sect overall, teenagers who leave the faith struggle to make it on their own since they lack a high school diploma.
  • We keep hearing about cases in which religious authorities who fail to report crimes of child sexual abuse take advantage of legal loopholes, claiming that they heard about the abuses during “confession.”
  • While Oregon is set to change its ways, most states still grant some degree of prosecutorial immunity to most parents who allow their children to die from religiously motivated medical neglect.

Is religious freedom in such peril that we must protect it at the expense of children’s health and safety? Are we teetering on such a slippery slope in the fight for religious liberty, that we must accept child abuse and neglect as unavoidable collateral damage? Or, have incidents of religious child maltreatment, such as the ritual abuse case in Pennsylvania, made freedom a “dirty word,” as Huffington Post columnist Frank Schaeffer opines?

What price religious “freedom”? Terror. Educational neglect. Ritual abuse. Death. The list goes on.


[UPDATE: In the summer of 2011, Oregon did repeal its religious faith healing-related exemption. Now, adults who refuse to provide medical care for children and claim that such neglect is for religious reasons will no longer be allowed to escape prosecution.]

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