34 U.S. states allow religious exemptions from child abuse, neglect laws

Children on the cover of the Prevent Child Abuse America annual report.Facebook/Prevent Child Abuse America

In many states in the U.S., parents are exempted from liability in civil child abuse statutes arising from medical treatments for a child with the religious beliefs of parents, government data revealed.

According to Pew Research Center, 34 states and the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico have exemptions under the law, based on data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In some states, there are religious exemptions to criminal child abuse and neglect statutes and in at least six states, exemptions to manslaughter laws.

An Idaho task force recently released a report revealing that in 2013, five kids died unnecessarily when their parents refused medical treatment for them because of religious reasons.

The report prompted state lawmakers to push to repeal state laws that protected the parents from civil and criminal liability.

Under the exemptions, if a parent refuses to get medical treatment for a child and chooses to have spiritual treatment through prayer, the kid will not be considered "neglected" even if it results in death.

According to the center, the exemptions were passed to accommodate the spiritual beliefs of groups such as the Christian Scientists and the Followers of Christ.

When a patient is a minor, the issue can become a tug-of-war between child welfare and medical necessity and parental rights and religious liberty.

Today, 19 states and territories have no religious exemptions to child abuse and neglect statutes including Tennessee which recently removed religious exemption after a child died of cancer and the mother chose spiritual treatment through prayer instead of medical treatment.

Nevada and American Samoa have exemptions but do not mention religion but could be interpreted to include such.

"Those investigating child abuse must take into account accepted child-rearing practices of the culture in which the child participates," reads a statute in American Samoa.

Sixteen states and territories have exemptions that specify that if spiritual treatment is chosen, it should be in accordance with the practices of a recognised religious denomination.