Health and religion collide

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One area that sees tension in the debate over the separation of church and state, but which doesn’t generate as many headlines in the media, is when religious beliefs conflict with health and safety laws.

On January 31, the Columbus Ohio Dispatch reported on a dust up between the Amish community in nearby Hardin County and the county health department. The issue is over the selling of homemade foods made and sold by the Amish to the public.

Mary Slabaugh received a visit from the Health Department because they heard she was selling deli meats and cheeses without a license. They also learned that she and other Amish families planned to sell custard pies and pumpkin rolls, which requires proper refrigeration and licensing.

Last week, state and local health officials met with Slabaugh and about a dozen other Amish people to explain the state’s food-safety regulations. They said they want to find a way for the Amish to legally sell homemade goods.

“This isn’t about shutting anybody down or about butting in on someone’s culture. It’s about education,” said Dave Zeller, environmental health director with the Kenton- Hardin Health District. “I’ve bought pies myself from Mary Slabaugh, and they are good ones. But we have to make sure that we’re not taking any chances on safety.”

Slabaugh and her friends and relatives see it another way. They think they are being picked on for their simple lifestyle, one that shuns the government intervention that licensing would require.

Homemade headache (01/31/2007 Columbus Dispatch)

The Amish is a religious sect that shuns pretty much the entire modern world. Many don’t use electricity, have phones, or cars. They still live as if it is the 19th century using oxen to plow fields and driving horse and buggies.

This isn’t the first time the Amish have complained about Ohio state laws applying to them. Many years ago the community refused to abide by some of the laws governing vehicles on the public roads. The state wanted them to attach a large orange “slow moving” signs on their buggies. Such a sign would conflict with their religious culture of simple living. A state court agreed with the Amish and now all that is required are battery powered back lights and reflective tape so they can be seen at night better.

One fight on the abortion front is coming from the pharmacy. Now that emergency contraception pills are available, some pharmacists are refusing to dispense them as abortion conflicts with their religious beliefs. Some states, including those who have tried to outlaw abortion in the past, have either enacted or plan on enacting laws to protect pharmacists if they choose not to dispense emergency contraception.

Mississippi enacted a sweeping statute that went into effect in July that allows health care providers, including pharmacists, to not participate in procedures that go against their conscience. South Dakota and Arkansas already had laws that protect a pharmacist’s right to refuse to dispense medicines. Ten other states considered similar bills this year.

The American Pharmacists Association, with 50,000 members, has a policy that says druggists can refuse to fill prescriptions if they object on moral grounds, but they must make arrangements so a patient can still get the pills. Yet some pharmacists have refused to hand the prescription to another druggist to fill.

Druggists refuse to give out pill

That is where the line is crossed.

I agree that no one should be forced to violate their religious beliefs in order to keep their job, but if you do exercise that objection you can’t obstruct someone from exercising their own beliefs. Refusing to even refer the patient to someone who will dispense the medication you object to, is simply wrong.

Another aspect of the conflict of religion and health is with the religious group called Christian Science. Created by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879, a primary belief to Christian Scientists is the efficacy of spiritual healing according to the interpretation of the Bible. They are less likely to use modern medicine to treat illness and more likely to use prayer or Bible reading for treatment.

Some years ago this belief led to some highly publicized court cases where parents were charged with child abuse or neglect because they refused modern medical treatment for their children and instead depended on their religion. The result was many states enacted laws that exempted religious beliefs from standard child abuse definitions.

There are now statutes in 44 states which contain a provision stating that a child is not to be deemed abused or neglected merely because he or she is receiving treatment by spiritual means, through prayer according to the tenets of a recognized religion. Although these exemptions take different forms and interpretations in different state jurisdictions, the overall effect has been to limit the ability of the state to prosecute parents for suspected or alleged abuse or medical neglect of children when such occurrences may be the result of religious practice. Severe (even fatal) physical discipline, failure to seek medical care, or refusal of a proven efficacious treatment of a critically ill child may be protected from prosecution because of the religious exemption clauses now found in a majority of state codes.

Christian Science

This is another case of a religion getting special treatment. If most parents refused to use modern medical science to treat their ill child they can expect to get a hard time from authorities but if you refuse because of religion, then that seems to be okay.

You could make a case for refusing treatment based on solid facts – case studies, statistics, etc… but making them on religious claims – some interpretations of the Bible – seems just silly on the face of it.


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