Christian Science in the Courts: Spiritual Healing and the Welfare of Children

Open Access
Satira, John Michael
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Anne Carver Rose, Thesis Supervisor
  • Michael James Milligan, Honors Advisor
  • Christian Science
  • Religion
  • Spiritual Healing
  • Child Welfare
  • Walker
  • Hermanson
  • Twitchell
This thesis investigates a series of state-level court cases from the 1980s and 1990s where state prosecutors charged Christian Science parents with criminal offenses after their children died after being treated with spiritual healing and not traditional medicine. In a general trend throughout the cases, the Christian Science parents saw the prosecutions as violating their religious freedom, citing religious exemption laws that protected their right to practice spiritual healing. The prosecutors, however, argued that state laws did allow criminal prosecution, and that religious freedom was not at question in the cases. The cases highlighted a specific subset of First Amendment concerns where issues of religious freedom, parental rights, and the welfare of children all converged. While state courts provided differing views on the individual cases, the decisions were intricate and addressed concerns of religious freedom, clarity of laws, and due process rights of the prosecuted. My method in this thesis utilizes case studies of individual state court cases. The selected cases are California’s Walker v. Superior Court in 1988, Florida’s Hermanson v. State in 1992, and Massachusetts’s Commonwealth v. Twitchell in 1993. The analysis of each case focuses on the state Supreme Court final decisions and explains each individual case’s reasoning and justification, while also acknowledging the significance of the cases to Christian Scientists and their prayer healing practices. Ultimately, the trends in all three of the cases are analyzed together for their broader significance on the state attitude toward religious exemptions when child welfare was at stake. State prosecutors were willing to criminally charge parents who chose spiritual healing over conventional medical care to show that child welfare was more important than religious free exercise. Nonetheless, state courts were unable to interpret the legislation in question in a straightforward and uniform way.