Are religious beliefs a defense to criminal charges?

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People’s sincere religious beliefs may occasionally conflict with the law. Usually, it’s the religious beliefs that must yield, as the law rarely accepts them as a defense to criminal charges. If a government has decided that certain activity is illegal, then it’s usually no excuse to say, “I did it because of my religious beliefs.”

Example 1: Sally, a Wisconsin mother, has a child, Anne, who has diabetes. Because of her religious beliefs, Sally decides not to provide Anne with medical treatment. Anne dies. Prosecutors charge Sally with reckless homicide for Anne’s death. There is a Wisconsin law about protection of parents who choose treatment through prayer instead of medical treatment, but it applies only to charges of child abuse and doesn’t help Sally with the homicide charge. Even if she sincerely holds them, her religious beliefs won’t constitute a defense to that charge. (See State v. Neumann, 832 N.W.2d 560 (Wis. 2013); Wis. Stat. § 948.03.)

Example 2: George, a Hawaii resident, grows marijuana at his house. The local police find, in part, 82 marijuana plants at his home; the prosecution charges him with violating drug laws. George is a reverend in a church and has sincere religious beliefs about the spiritual use of cannabis—his religion mandates that members smoke marijuana once a year or more. The court upholds George’s conviction, finding that he hasn’t proved that the drug laws unconstitutionally burden his free exercise of religion. (State v. Adler, 118 P.3d 652 (Haw. 2005).

Exceptions in State Law

Some states make religion-based exceptions to criminal laws. Oregon law, for example, allows for a defense based on religious beliefs when the crime is possession of peyote. And in Illinois, there’s an exception to the prohibition against giving alcohol to a minor that applies to religious ceremonies. (Or. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 475.752; 235 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 5/6-16.)

Certain states also recognize exceptions for faith-based treatment when it comes to medical care. For instance, a state might decide that it’s not a deprivation of medically necessary health care to provide someone with Christian Science treatment instead of medical treatment. (See WashRevCode Ann. § 9A.42.005.)

Federal Law Exceptions

Apart from state law, the federal Constitution can create religious exceptions to criminal statutes. In one case, members of an Amish community were convicted of violating a state law that required children to attend high school until the age of 16. The parents held sincere religious beliefs that conflicted with the state law. The Supreme Court, relying in part on the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, held that the convictions violated the parents’ religious freedom. (Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).)

There’s also a federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which applies to federal laws that burden the practice of religion. The law may affect certain cases where a person faces federal criminal charges.

Example: As part of a religious ceremony, members of a church drink tea that contains a federally controlled substance. The federal government seizes a shipment of the tea and threatens prosecution. The Supreme Court finds that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires that the government show a compelling interest in order to prevent the church’s religious use of the tea. Although the government explains the reasons behind the Controlled Substances Act, the Court holds that this reasoning isn't compelling enough in this case. (Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418 (2006).)

Consult a Lawyer

Whether your religious beliefs constitute a defense to criminal charges depends on many factors, including the state and the crime. In addition, the law regarding religion-based defenses can evolve over time. If you face charges and want to know about the available defenses, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.

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