By Richard Locker
The House gave final legislative approval today to a bill repealing 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.
The bill repeals the “spiritual treatment” exemption to Tennessee’s child abuse and neglect statute. The exemption was intended to provide a shield from child abuse and neglect prosecution for parents and others if a 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 church or denomination in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.
The repeal bill, Senate Bill 1761, is sponsored by Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, a cardiac surgeon, and Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, a lawyer. It won unanimous Senate approval in March and an 85-1 vote Thursday in the House and now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam, who’s expected to sign it into law.
The exemption came into play less than a decade after its enactment, in the death of Jessica Crank, 15, of Loudon County in 2002. 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.
Jessica became ill with what was diagnosed later as Ewing’s Sarcoma. Her mother and Sherman declined — after an initial visit with a chiropractor and later a walk-in clinic — to pursue doctors’ urgent referrals to hospitals for treatment. After the child’s death, her mother and Sherman were indicted on child neglect charges. Both were eventually convicted after courts ruled that Sherman’s group was not a “recognized church or denomination” covered by the exemption.
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