Supreme Court Upholds Child Neglect Conviction, Rejects Mother’s Reliance on Religious Exemption

The Tennessee Supreme Court has affirmed the conviction of an East Tennessee woman for child neglect based upon her failure to obtain medical treatment for her daughter.

In 2002, Jacqueline Crank’s adolescent daughter developed a tumor on her shoulder and began to experience extreme pain. Crank took her daughter to see a chiropractor and a nurse practitioner, both of whom advised that immediate emergency care was needed. Crank, a member of a small congregation of the Universal Life Church in Lenoir City, claimed that she had prayed for her daughter in accordance with her religious beliefs instead of seeking medical care.

The Department of Children’s Services intervened and authorized medical treatment. Crank’s daughter was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, and she died in September 2002 at the age of 15. The trial court found Crank guilty of child neglect and sentenced her to one year of probation. The trial court ruled that Crank did not qualify for the spiritual treatment exemption, a law that protects parents who provide “treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone in accordance with the tenets or practices of a recognized church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner thereof in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.” The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed and upheld the decision of the trial court.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, Crank claimed that the spiritual treatment law was too vague to give her fair warning that she could be prosecuted for her conduct. She also argued that the law violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court held that the law was not overly vague. Because Crank would not prevail in the appeal of her conviction even if the exemption were found unconstitutional, the Court concluded that the Establishment Clause issue should not be decided in this case.

Read the State v. Jacqueline Crank opinion, authored by Justice Gary R. Wade.