The legal principle
of parens patriae ("father of the country") operates in cases involving
children. The principle refers to the government's duty to act on
behalf of a child or mentally ill person. The phrase refers to the
"state" as the guardian of minors and incompetent adults and is
based on a concept rooted in common law and royal prerogatives.
The British Constitution specified that the king in his capacity
of "parens patriae" was the universal trustee.
Decision of the Massachusetts Court
Massachusetts v. David and Ginger Twitchell
have had to weigh conflicting interests, legal precedents, religious
tenets and state laws in cases involving sick children, parents
who reject conventional medical care because of religious convictions
and the state's parens patriae role. In Massachusetts
v. David and Ginger Twitchell, the court of appeals overturned
the original judgment. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
based its decision on a state law, remanding the case (i.e., sending
it back to the lower court with instructions that allowed for another
trial). Read the details of Massachusetts v. David and Ginger
Twitchell to see why there are no easy decisions in these cases.
In the first
trial, Massachusetts v. David and Ginger Twitchell (1990,
Mass.), the state of Massachusetts won. The court determined that
the state's interest in protecting children overrode the parents'
rights to exercise their religious beliefs. Parents may not endanger
their children. Although the Twitchells could have received up to
20 years in prison, the judge placed them on 10 years' probation.
They were ordered to take their three remaining sons in for periodic
medical checkups with a licensed pediatrician.
appealed the verdict. In the second trial in 1993, Commonwealth
v. David R. Twitchell, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
found "… the judgments must be reversed, the verdicts must be set
aside, and the cases remanded for a new trial, if the district attorney
concludes that such a prosecution is necessary in the interests
original criminal trial, medical authorities said there must have
been symptoms, such as fever, vomiting, and severe pain, which would
have signaled serious illness. They also testified that corrective
surgery for Meckel's diverticulum (the bowel obstruction) has a
high success rate.
son's illness, David Twitchell had consulted with an official of
the Christian Science Church for guidance. The church's "Committee
on Publication" in each state is composed of one person whose duty
is to explain Christian Science to the community and to give advice
to practitioners. After consulting with the Committee on Publication,
David Twitchell read a church publication concerning the legal rights
and obligations of Christian Scientists in Massachusetts. In it,
the General Law of Massachusetts was quoted: "A child shall not
be deemed to be neglected or lack proper physical care for the sole
reason that he is being provided remedial treatment by spiritual
means alone in accordance with the tenets and practice of a recognized
church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner
thereof." (G.L. c. 273, § 1, as appearing in St.1977, c. 848, §
In the appeal
of the Twitchell verdict, lawyers argued that the Massachusetts
law passed by the state legislature in 1971 shielded
Christian Science parents from charges.
Cases involving ill children, religious convictions and government
- In the early
1900s in Pennsylvania, despite religious objections, several parents
were found guilty of manslaughter for failure to provide their
children with medical treatment.
v. Massachusetts (1944), a case involving Jehovah's Witness
parents, focused on child labor vs. free exercise rights. In their
decision, the Supreme Court justices confirmed the right of the
government to protect children, even in cases involving religious
convictions of their parents:
may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not
follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make
martyrs of their children before they have reached the age
of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice
for themselves. Massachusetts has determined that an absolute
prohibition, though one limited to streets and public places
and to the incidental uses proscribed, is necessary to accomplish
its legitimate objectives. Its power to attain them is broad
enough to reach these peripheral instances in which the parent's
supervision may reduce but cannot eliminate entirely the ill
effects of the prohibited conduct. We think that with reference
to the public proclaiming of religion, upon the streets and
in other similar public places, the power of the state to
control the conduct of children reaches beyond the scope of
its authority over adults, as is true in the case of other
freedoms, and the rightful boundary of its power has not been
crossed in this case." Prince v. Massachusetts, 321
U.S. 158, 170 (1944).
- In 1967
a group of Jehovah's Witnesses went to court to fight a state
statute that allowed the courts to order medical treatment, including
blood transfusions, for children without parental consent. Jehovah's
Witnesses believe that the act of receiving blood or blood products
prevents a person from resurrection and everlasting life after
death. The Jehovah's Witnesses argued:
have the right to exercise their religious convictions without
were being denied the right to family privacy,
were being denied equal protection under the law since the
state protects the religious liberty and parental rights of
all other citizens and other religions,
have a deep sense of responsibility to their family; thus,
they have the right to decide what medical treatment they
will accept for their children. The state's highest court
concluded that religious freedom does not include the freedom
to expose children to ill health or death. The state has a
right to intervene.
involving other religious affiliations are found in most states.
The 1990 case
of Oregon v. Smith, the infamous peyote case, the justices
included in their deliberation whether the "compelling interest"
test should apply to laws involving child neglect, compulsory vaccination
and child labor:
If the "compelling
interest" test is to be applied at all, then, it must be applied
across the board, to all actions thought to be religiously commanded.
Moreover, if "compelling interest" really means what it says (and
watering it down here would subvert its rigor in the other fields
where it is applied), many laws will not meet the test. Any society
adopting such a system would be courting anarchy, but that danger
increases in direct proportion to the society's diversity of religious
beliefs, and its determination to coerce or suppress none of them.
Precisely because "we are a cosmopolitan nation made up of people
of almost every conceivable religious preference," Braunfeld
v. Brown, 366 U.S., at 606, and precisely because we value
and protect that religious divergence, we cannot afford the luxury
of deeming presumptively invalid, as applied to the religious
objector, every regulation of conduct that does not protect an
interest of the highest order. The rule respondents favor would
open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions
from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind - ranging
from compulsory military service, see, e. g., Gillette v. United
States, 401 U.S. 437 (1971), to the payment of taxes, see,
e. g., United States v. Lee, supra; to health and safety
regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, see, e.
g., Funkhouser v. State, 763 P. 2d 695 (Okla. Crim. App.
1988), compulsory vaccination laws, see, e. g., Cude v. State,
237 Ark. 927, 377 S.W. 2d 816 (1964), … to social welfare legislation
such as … child labor laws, see Prince v. Massachusetts,
321 U.S. 158 (1944), animal cruelty laws, see, e. g., Church
of the Lukumi Babalu Aye Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 723 F. Supp.
1467 (SD Fla. 1989 …. The First Amendment's protection of religious
liberty does not require this.
Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 890 (1990).