COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania

William G. BARNHART and Linda Barnhart, Appellants
979 Pittsburgh 1983
Superior Court of Pennsylvania.
345 Pa.Super. 10,  497 A.2d 616 (1985)


 This matter comes before us on appeal from judgment of sentence for involuntary manslaughter [n. 1] and endangering the welfare of a child. [n. 2] Appellants' convictions follow the death of their infant son.  The child, Justin Barnhart, age 2 years and 7 months, died as a result of an untreated Wilms' tumor.  Appellants, life-long members of the Faith Tabernacle [p. 17] Church, had relied on God to the exclusion of modern medicine to cure the boy's cancer.  Justin's death sparked an inquiry.  As a result of that investigation, appellants were tried and convicted by a jury on counts of involuntary manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child.  Their post-verdict motions denied, appellants received terms of probation.  They now appeal.

 Appellants raise five points of error.  The first squarely frames the conflict in this case:  the competing interests of parent and state in a child's life.


 Appellants argue that the criminal statutes were unconstitutionally applied to punish conduct protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. At issue was appellants' failure, for religious reasons, to seek medical treatment for their child.  The statutes provide:
Endangering welfare of children
A parent, guardian, or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age commits a misdemeanor of the second degree if he knowingly endangers the welfare of the child by violating a duty of care, protection or support.
 18 Pa.C.S. Sec. 4304, and:
Involuntary manslaughter
A person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter when as a direct result of the doing of an unlawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, he causes the death of another person.
 18 Pa.C.S. Sec. 2504(a).  Against these statutory proscriptions, appellants assert a claim of religious right.  They contend their conduct as parents raising children within a particular religious order, by the principles and tenets of that order, is protected by the First Amendment.  See U.S. Const.Amend. I.


 [p. 20] ... Our decision today directly penalizes appellants' exercise of their religious beliefs.  Appellants ask how we can hold them criminally liable for putting their faith in God.  No easy answer attends.  A central tenet of appellants' faith is that life rests ultimately in God's hands.  Three generations of appellants' family have adhered to that belief. [n. 5]  As Pastor Charles Wallace Nixon  explained, more than concern for the child's physical well-being, the church's "greater concern" was for the child's spiritual interest or eternal interest:

Well, the only greater concern would have been his spiritual interest or eternal interest.
It has been stated by our presiding elder, by Pastor Reinert, he said, "that the courts and people would not possibly as a whole accept a statement like that, but it has been said that that is an abuse or child abuse or in other words harmful to the child."  We would consider [p. 21] going to a doctor and trusting in medicine doing greater harm because it would be harmful as we believe in our belief, it would be harming the spiritual and eternal interest of the child and the parents as well in doing so.
 Accepting as true these statements of appellants' religious beliefs, the question becomes one of degree:  to what extent may a parent impose these beliefs on a minor child?

 Appellants' right to hold and to practice their religious beliefs free from governmental interference is guaranteed by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, and by Article I, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.  Appellants' right to raise their child by these beliefs follows from the guarantee of religious freedom and the state's traditional deference to the parents' authority over their child.  See In re Green, 448 Pa. 338, 292 A.2d 387 (1972) (unless the child's life is immediately imperiled, the state's interest must give way to the parent's religious beliefs precluding medical treatment);  see also Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U.S. 622, 639 n. 18, 99 S.Ct. 3035, 3046 n. 18, 61 L.Ed.2d 797 (1979) (suggesting there exists a constitutional parental right against undue, adverse interference by the state).  Appellants' exercise of these rights has brought them in conflict with other established law.  An examination of the bases of these rights makes clear that the conflict was all but inevitable.

 The guarantee of freedom of religion is intended to secure the rights of the individual as against the state.  Underlying the guarantee is a principle of neutrality, a belief that religion is "not within the cognizance of civil government."  Reynolds v. United States, 8 Otto 145, 163, 98 U.S. 145, 163, 25 L.Ed. 244 (1878).  However nice the distinction in theory, as the case at bar attests it sometimes fails in practice.

 Assertion of a claim of religious right does not vouchsafe the parents secure from state influence in every aspect of their children's lives.  As the United States Supreme [p. 22] Court in Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 64 S.Ct. 438, 88 L.Ed. 645 (1944), explained:
It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparations for obligations the society can neither supply nor hinder.  And it is in recognition of this that these decisions have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.
But the family itself is not beyond regulation in the public interest, as against a claim of religious liberty.  And neither rights of religion nor rights of parenthood are beyond limitation.  Acting to guard the general interest in  youth's well being, the state as parens patriae may restrict the parent's control by requiring school attendance, regulating or prohibiting the child's labor, and in many other ways.  Its authority is not nullified merely because the parent grounds his claim to control the child's course of conduct on religion or conscience.  Thus he cannot claim freedom from compulsory vaccination for the child more than for himself on religious grounds.  The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.
 Id. at 166-167, 64 S.Ct. at 442 (citations omitted).  For its last proposition, the Court cites the case of People v. Pierson, 176 N.Y. 201, 68 N.E. 243 (1903).

 The question whether a parent may be held criminally liable when the exercise of his or her religion results in the child's death is one of first impression for our appellate courts.  The court in Green, concluding that the child's life was not in immediate physical peril, did not reach that question.  448 Pa. at 345, 292 A.2d at 392. [n. 6]  Neither this Court nor our Supreme Court have addressed the issue on the merits.  See Commonwealth v. Konz, 498 Pa. at 644, [p. 23] 450 A.2d at 641 (dicta);  Commonwealth v. Comber, 170 Pa.Super. 466, 469, 87 A.2d 90, 93 (1952) (dicta), rev'd on other grounds, 374 Pa. 570, 97 A.2d 343 (1953).  Of the pair of lower court cases which have grappled with the issue, one attempted to dissolve the dilemma, Commonwealth v. Breth, 44 Pa.C. 56 (Clearfield Co.1915), while the other rode roughshod through it, Commonwealth v. Hoffman, 29 Pa.C. 65 (Butler Co.1903).

6. Green involved a suit for judicial declaration that the minor was a "neglected child" under 11 P.S.Sec. 243.  The statute defined "neglected  child" as "a child whose parent ... neglects or refuses to provide proper or necessary ... medical or surgical care."  Section 243 was repealed in 1972.  The current statute is silent on this point.

 In Hoffman, a child died of scarlet fever after his father called in the elders of a Christian Scientist Church rather than a physician who was near and available.  Framing the issue as a question of reasonableness, the court asked the jury to determine whether an ordinarily prudent man would have relied on these remedies alone.  The court answered defendant's claim of religious right with its own reading of the scriptures:
And we may well believe that the demands of ordinary prudence do not run counter to divine authority, for the same inspired writer, whose injunctions the defendant has sought so literally and conscientiously to observe, informs us that "as the body, without the spirit, is dead, so faith without works is dead also."
 Id. at 69.  In the case at bar, appellant testified that:  "In my belief I know no other way but the way I pointed out to live and if I would go to a doctor I would be turning my back on my faith."  The First Amendment precludes scrutiny of the verity or validity of religious beliefs.  See United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78 (1944).  Adoption of the Hoffman approach would entail our pitting one set of beliefs against another.  Such a course would clearly violate the spirit of neutrality.  We decline, therefore, to follow the Hoffman approach.

 The Breth decision presents its own set of problems.  There a father failed, apparently for religious reasons, to furnish medical attendance and proper medicines for his critically ill son.  The child died.  The parent was prosecuted for manslaughter.  The trial court charged the jury:
[p. 24] It would not be a lawful excuse for the non-performance of this duty that he entertained some religious or conscientious belief that it was unnecessary or that he had no intent to do anything which would interfere with the recovery of the child nor that he was honestly mistaken as to the efficacy of the means which he did use.  As a citizen of this commonwealth and the parent of this dependent child, the law of Pennsylvania, so long as he  remains within its borders, puts upon him the duty of doing those things for its protection which the ordinary judgment of prudent men at the time and place would dictate, and his failure so to do would be negligence, and if the circumstances indicated that the child's condition required great care, his failure to provide the means ordinarily used by prudent men and at his disposal would be gross or culpable negligence.
 44 Pa.C. at 66.  So doing, the court focused on the parent's civil duty to the exclusion of any religious concerns.

 The court in Breth simply assumed that civil law took precedence over religious convictions.  As the United States Supreme Court decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 92 S.Ct. 1526, 32 L.Ed.2d 15 (1972), makes clear, that assumption does not always hold.  The civil law may, at times, give way to religious beliefs.  At issue in Yoder was a claim by members of the Old Order Amish religion and the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church that application to them of a state compulsory school-attendance law violated their rights under the free exercise clause.  In sustaining the Amish claim, Mr. Chief Justice Burger for the majority reasoned that the state's interest in universal compulsory education was outweighed by the harm enforcement of the law would cause the Amish in the free exercise of their religion:
The impact of the compulsory-attendance law on respondents' practice of the Amish religion is not only severe, but inescapable.  For the Wisconsin law affirmatively compels them, under threat of criminal sanction, to perform [p. 25] acts undeniably at odds with fundamental tenets of their religious beliefs.
 406 U.S. at 218, 92 S.Ct. at 1534 (citations omitted).  The Yoder Court rejected the argument that the state as parens patriae has the power to extend the benefit of secondary education to children regardless of their parents' wishes.  Id. at 229, 92 S.Ct. at 1540.  The majority rested safe in its assurance that no harm to the child or to the public safety, peace, order, or welfare could be demonstrated or properly inferred.  Id. at 230, 92 S.Ct. at 1540.

 Mr. Justice Douglas, dissenting in part, argues that the case necessarily involved not only the free exercise claims of the parents but also those of the high-school-age children:
These children are "persons" within the meaning of the Bill of Rights.  We have held so over and over again.  In Haley v. Ohio, 332 U.S. 596, [68 S.Ct. 302, 92 L.Ed. 224] we extended the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment in a state trial of a 15-year-old boy.  In In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 13, [87 S.Ct. 1428, 1436, 18 L.Ed.2d 527] we held that "neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Bill of Rights is for adults alone."  In In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, [90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368] we held that a 12-year-old boy, when charged with an act which would be a crime if committed by an adult, was entitled to procedural safeguards....
 Id. at 243, 92 S.Ct. at 1547 (citations corrected).  Chief among these safeguards for Douglas was the child's right to be heard.

 Although his life hung in the balance, Justin Barnhart here had no voice in his parents' decision to rely on religious rather than medical help. Precisely because a child of two years and seven months cannot speak on his own behalf, the state has charged the parents with the affirmative duty of providing medical care to protect that child's life.  Faced with a condition which threatened their child's life, the parents had no choice but to seek medical help.

 [p. 26] We recognize that our decision today directly penalizes appellants in the practice of their religion.  We emphasize that the liability attaches not to appellants' decisions for themselves but rather to their decision effectively to forfeit their child's life.  Accord Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. at 170, 64 S.Ct. at 444 ("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 (the children) have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.").  Admittedly, the distinction is not a happy one.  An integral part of family life is the transmission of values from one generation to the next.  In the case at bar, the values include a set of religious beliefs.  Sitting as a court of law, we abjure even the suggestion that, by our decision today, we are passing on the content of those beliefs.