Using Religion as a Defense to Criminal Charges
Freedom of religion is a core element of the US Constitution. The nation is a melting pot of Americans from all types of religious backgrounds, with some of the most common groups being Christians, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and more. These religions hold unique values and beliefs, but sometimes, people get arrested for acts that they sincerely thought were justified under their religion.
Take communion, for example. This Christian practice uses bread and wine to symbolize Jesus Christ’s body and blood, respectively, and believers of all ages consume these items in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice. But people under 21 are generally prohibited from consuming alcohol in all 50 states, so what happens when an adult serves wine to a minor for religious purposes?
We address these ambiguities and more below.
Underage Alcohol Consumption for Religious Purposes
26 states have legal exceptions to underage drinking for religious purposes. Specifically, these laws only allow minors to consume alcohol as part of a religious service or ceremony. A minor cannot drink alcohol at a restaurant and claim it as part of their religious beliefs, for instance. Referring to the example above, communion is a religious ceremony, so accordingly, underage consumption of alcohol is permitted in the following 26 states:
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
Religion as Defense to Drug Charges
Sacramental drugs have been used in certain religious ceremonies. As such, the federal government has attempted to ban these controlled substances, citing that they are not protected under the law despite being used for religious ceremonies. The outcome?
In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a New Mexico church known as Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV), or the Union of the Plants, that preaches a “Christian spiritualism” combining indigenous Brazilian beliefs with contemporary Christian teachings. UDV holds that hoasca, a tea that contains the hallucinogenic drug diemethyltryptamine (DMT), is sacred.
When federal agents seized a shipment of hoasca, UDV sued the federal government claiming that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless there is a “compelling governmental interest” that is used in the “least restrictive” way to religious practices.
As a result, the Supreme Court held that UDV has the religious freedom to use hoasca. Chief Justice Roberts compared hoasca to Peyote, which contains an illicit substance called mescaline. However, since Native American tribes are allowed to use Peyote in their religious ceremonies, Roberts claimed that it would only make sense to allow UDV to practice their religion with such exceptions.
Failure to Render Medical Care & Child Abuse
Between 1975 and 1995, 172 cases of child deaths from preventable medical complications have been recorded, not including the 78 faith-healing deaths reported in Oregon between 1955 and 1998 nor the 12 deaths in Idaho in 1980-1998. In 2013, 5 child deaths in Idaho were reported from families who didn’t get medical treatment for their children due to their religious beliefs.
Faith healing, by definition, is healing by religious belief and prayer rather than medical treatment. Historically, faith healing has raised questions as to whether or not withholding medical treatment from a minor is considered child abuse.
Prior to 1974, failing to seek medical care for a child on religious grounds was considered child abuse. Now, however, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act gives states the power to decide whether or not religious exceptions apply to child abuse statutes.
As of 2016, 24 states and D.C. have legal shields for parents who refuse medical treatment for children on religious grounds, according to a Pew Research Center report.
Kirpans & Weapons Charges
Sikhs are required by their religion to have 5 articles of faith on or a part of their person at all times. One of these articles includes the kirpan, which is a religious article resembling a sword. The kirpan is a reminder to its bearer of a Sikh’s solemn duty to protect the weak and promote justice for all.
However, given its sword-like resemblance, the kirpan can easily be perceived as an illegal weapon. As a result, Sikh children have had limitations on exercising this critical element of their faith in schools, while many others have been arrested on weapons charges in states like New York.
A Sikh IRS woman in Texas was fired in 2006 for wearing her kirpan, and after suing the federal government, the federal government implemented a new policy with the following regulations that apply to federal government buildings:
- Sikhs carrying kirpans with blades of less than 2.5 inches will, in most instances, continue to be allowed entry into FPS-secured buildings with their kirpans.
- Sikhs carrying kirpans with blades 2.5 inches or greater may request an exception (temporary) or exemption (permanent) to enter FPS-secured buildings with their kirpans. The granting of accommodation is discretionary.
- Sikhs initially denied entry with their kirpans will have an opportunity to appeal the decision to FPS headquarters.
As you can see, the blurred line between religious practices and criminal offenses has resulted in countless arrests and charges. A parent who withholds medical treatment for their child, a UDV member who uses hoasca, a 14-year-old who drinks wine at communion, and a Sikh who bears a kirpan may be able to avoid criminal charges by using religion as their defense. After all, freedom of religion is protected by the First Amendment.
But Texas laws look different from other states’ laws. As such, you could get charged for a crime you didn’t believe was a crime at all. We are available to answer your questions on this matter and defend your rights if you are facing charges.