Last week, police announced they're in the process of investigating the Word of Life Christian Church, a small, independent congregation in upstate New York, after several parishioners are alleged to have brutally beaten two younger members, one of whom—19-year-old Lucas Leonard—died of his injuries. The other victim, Lucas' 17-year-old brother Christopher, required hospitalization. Now facing manslaughter charges: the brothers' parents, who allegedly took part in the beatings.
The case brings fresh attention to the operations of small, radical churches in the United States, which are often protected by special religious exemption laws. In the September/October issue of Pacific Standard, journalist Julia Scheeres reported on another independent church, the Twelve Tribes, which believes that frequent and hard corporal punishment is good for children's development. Former Twelve Tribes members who had grown up in the group talked to Scheeres about being beaten many times a day, for small infractions such as not raising their hands at the dinner table. In her piece, Scheeres argues that U.S. lawmakers' deference to religious groups' lobbying—to keep corporal punishment legal, and to allow them to pull their children out of school early—left children in the Twelve Tribes vulnerable to abuse for years. In 1984, authorities in Vermont raided a Twelve Tribes community, where they rounded up the children, to later ask a judge for permission to check for signs of excessive corporal punishment. But the judge rejected the prosecutors' request: "The Twelve Tribes hailed the decision as a victory for religious freedom," Scheeres writes. "God had delivered His people."
"Their religious liberty is not violated in any way if they're subjected to criminal law after killing children."
From what we know, the Word of Life case seems more clear-cut than the 1984 Twelve Tribes raid. Unlike some states, New York doesn't have state-level religious-exemption laws, which takes away one possible defense for the church members. In addition, because the case was much more violent, the defendants may have a hard time finding legal protection, despite religious exemption laws. "Their religious liberty is not violated in any way if they're subjected to criminal law after killing children," says Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Yeshiva University School of Law.
For Leslie Griffin, a religion and law expert at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas, the seeming strength of the prosectors' side only highlights how clear-cut the case against religious groups must be to stand a chance in court. "It's a reminder," Griffin says, "of all those laws out there that are protecting parents [who harm] their children." Griffin pointed us to a list of states' religious exemption laws—maintained by the advocacy group Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty—offering protection to parents against charges if their children suffer injury or death as a result of the parents' religious restrictions on medicine or health care.
Since many of these laws specify that parents can't be prosecuted for withholding health care, they probably don't apply to the Word of Life case. Overall, however, the health-care laws are a part of a controversial aspect of the American legal system: how Americans allow religious folks to exempt themselves from certain laws, in the name of religious freedom. There's the clause in the Affordable Care Act allowing religious employers to decline contraceptive coverage, for example, and state laws that critics argue could by utilized by businesses to decline service to same-sex couples.
For Scheeres, among those exemption laws that most urgently need to be repealed are ones involving children, like Christopher Leonard. "Children are defenseless against abuse. They don't vote. They don't organize," Scheeres writes. "They rely on adults for protection—and sometimes it's those same adults who violate their rights."
Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.