In Walker v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court held that the criminal prosecution for involuntary manslaughter and felony child endangerment of a mother who withheld orthodox medical treatment from her ill child based on her religious beliefs did not violate free exercise. Citing the United States Supreme Court's doctrinal distinction between the absolute protection of religious beliefs and the qualified protection afforded religious conduct, the court characterized such criminal prosecutions as constitutional restrictions on religious conduct. This Note argues that the Walker court was wrong. Because the court held that an express exemption for spiritual treatment in section 270 of the California Civil Code, a misdemeanor child protection statute, shields parents who choose to treat their ill children with prayer from liability, a prosecution for child endangerment and involuntary manslaughter based on an objective theory of criminal negligence by definition interferes with the defendant's religious belief. Because the California court itself found Laurie Walker's faith in the healing power of prayer "objectively" unreasonable, it failed to recognize that allowing the trier of fact to examine the faith healing parent's knowledge, or to impute to her the knowledge of a "reasonable person," necessarily violated the one area to which the Supreme Court consistently has granted absolute protection under the free exercise clause-religious belief.
For over 100 years, the United States Supreme Court has consistently held that, although religiously motivated conduct must yield to state restriction, the religious beliefs underlying that conduct are absolutely protected from interference. Thus, in the interest of protecting the health and welfare of children, the state undeniably may restrict the religious conduct of faith healing parents. But insofar as Walker allows the state to interfere with the religious beliefs of those parents, that decision illustrates the precarious status of free exercise protections. The holding in Walker reduces the distinction between religious beliefs and religious conduct to mere rhetoric, and ultimately leaves the free exercise of religion vulnerable at all levels.
Edward Egan Smith,
The Criminalization of Belief: when Free Exercise Isn't,
42 Hastings L.J. 1491
Available at: https://repository.uchastings.edu/hastings_law_journal/vol42/iss5/5