A Pennsylvania woman who insisted her 7-year-old daughter watch the killing of a chicken and eat its heart was sentenced to 18 months probation in June. The child told a teacher that the ceremony gave her nightmares.

Prosecutors charged 33-year-old Yenitza Colichon with child abuse and neglect. Colichon said she was seeking to protect her daughter while away at U.S. Army basic training by using a rite of the Central African religion Palo Mayombe.

Defense attorneys argued unsuccessfully that Colichon's right to religious freedom protects her from prosecution.

The main conflict is between parents' right to direct the religious upbringing of their children and the government's interest in protecting the health and safety of children, said Luke Goodrich, deputy national litigation director for the Becket Fund. "It's hard to draw a line," he said. "One benchmark is physical harm. Another is the state law governing abuse and neglect. Somebody who claims the religious right to engage in abuse and neglect will have a pretty weak case."

But with different abuse and neglect laws for each state, finding a standard becomes difficult, he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not given much guidance on the issue, according to Carl Esbeck, law professor at the University of Missouri. The government cannot judge parents differently if they justify their actions religiously.

Not everyone agrees.

Religious motivation does make a difference, according to Doug Laycock, law professor at the University of Virginia.

"It's a growing position among secular intellectuals to say there is no exception for religion," he said. "But of course there is. There always has been."

Otherwise, women and homosexuals would be priests in Roman Catholic churches. Children couldn't drink communion wine. Quakers would have to swear oaths.

"We've got all kinds of exceptions for religious practices," Laycock said. "But if a religious practice does significant, tangible harm to an unwilling third party or a child, the religious liberty has to give way."

Still, Colichon's case is troubling because it involves psychological—not physical—harm, he said. "It is very dangerous for the state to be saying, 'Your religion is bad for you.' "

There is also some danger of a nanny state, said Tom Farr, a professor of religion at Georgetown University.

"I'd be very cautious in making such a judgment, and err on the side of the parent," he said. "Judges [shouldn't] get involved unless there is clear and compelling evidence of danger or physical harm to the child."

Related Elsewhere:

Additional Christianity Today coverage of children's rights and parenting includes:

The Myth of the Perfect Parent | Why the best parenting techniques don't produce Christian children. (January 8, 2010)
My Top 5 Books for Shaping Parents | Caryn Rivadeneira reviews notable guides for Christian parents. (January 8, 2010)
Missionary Child Abuse| All God's Children recalls the travails of a West Africa boarding school. (August 18, 2009)
Faith-based Child Abuse| Shamblin defends Atlanta couple charged with murder. (April 1, 2004)
Gay Parenting on Trial | More homosexuals seek custody or adoption of young children. (July 8, 2002)

CT also has more news articles on our website.

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