The Michigan Court of Appeals just issued a ruling that could theoretically allow parents who murdered one child to regain custody of their three other kids… all because they happen to be religious.
It’s the latest ruling in a years-long saga involving a Christian couple that chose to let one of their babies die rather than take her to a doctor. Because of legal technicalities, they keep winning in court.
The story began in early 2017, when Abigail Piland was born without any obvious problems. But when the midwife who helped deliver her checked back the next day, Abigail didn’t look healthy. The midwife told mother Rachel Piland to take the child to a hospital because the baby “could suffer brain damage or die if not properly cared for.”
Rachel didn’t do that. Instead, she said “God makes no mistakes” and insisted Abigail was fine.
Abigail was not fine. Days later, she was dead. (Rachel and her husband Joshua then prayed for Abigail’s resurrection. Surprise: That didn’t work, either.)
A medical examiner later attributed the death to “unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia and kernicterus,” both jaundice-related problems that were treatable. Abigail never had the chance to see a doctor when blood was coming out of her mouth, or when she wasn’t eating, or when her skin became further discolored. All because her parents put more trust in God than someone who could actually help.
The Pilands were then charged with involuntary manslaughter, which meant they faced up to 15 years behind bars if convicted. That trial is separate from the one we’re talking about right now.
Here’s the issue at hand: Seven weeks after Abigail was murdered by her parents, the Pilands’ two other sons were taken from their custody. In 2018, the couple had another baby… who had the same health issues as Abigail. The parents were prepared to murder her, too, so state officials took the baby shortly after her birth and gave her the treatment her sister never received. That baby girl is thankfully still alive — and also in the custody of her maternal grandparents, just like her brothers.
The question now is whether the Pilands should regain custody of their living kids.
You might think this is an easy answer: Hell no. But Michigan law gives them an out: If they avoided medical treatment for their children for legitimate religious reasons, then they can’t be punished for it — at least not in custody cases. More technically, they cannot be called “negligent” parents if they were acting on their religious beliefs.
An earlier trial actually hinged on what I just said. There was an argument over whether the jury should be told the Pilands are considered “negligent” parents… or if they were exempt from that characterization on the basis of their faith. The Pilands, who said they were just practicing their faith when they killed their baby, really want the jury to know about this law.
But Ingham County Circuit Judge Laura Baird said that law didn’t apply in this case because the issue in this case involved “neglect” and that was a separate body of law. It was technical, but the entire case centered around that decision.
She ruled against the couple. The couple appealed the decision and won. Then the prosecutors asked the Michigan Supreme Court to overturn that case — in order to keep the kids safe. In 2019, the MI Supreme Court ruled in favor of the couple.
In practice, that meant if the defense could show the parents were simply living out their religious beliefs, they could point to that state law saying they’re not negligent parents in order to help them retain custody of their kids.
If the Pilands ultimately regained custody, it could have resulted in more dead children.
That brings us to the latest twist in this case. On Thursday, the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for the couple saying the original one shouldn’t count because the jury wasn’t given all the information it needed:
The result of the custody trial was spoiled because a jury wasn’t allowed to consider the role of religious beliefs when the couple skipped care for the child, the appeals court said.
Under state law, a parent “legitimately practicing” his or her religious beliefs when denying care can’t be found negligent on that reason alone, the court said in a 3-0 opinion Thursday.
“A rational view of the evidence supported the jury instruction, and the trial court erred by not giving it,” said judges Michael Kelly, Thomas Cameron and Kirsten Frank Kelly.
If given, a jury still can reject that defense based on the evidence, the court noted.
Law Professor Eugene Volokh says this decision is legally correct even if it’s ethically unsound:
I think the analysis is correct; the Religion Clauses preclude the government, including courts, from preferring beliefs that are endorsed by the established rules of a religious organization differently from beliefs that are the product of individual moral judgment…
The Michigan statute may well be a bad idea, and I think that, absent such a statute, removing children from the care of parents who refuse to provide medical care is constitutional. Under the Free Exercise Clause, such a rule would be neutral and generally applicable and thus valid, I think. And even under state statutes or constitutional provisions that presumptively require religious exemptions, that presumption would be rebutted here, since such removal is narrowly tailored to the compelling interest in preserving children’s life and health.
In other words, be mad at the law, not the judges. It’s now going to be up to a jury to protect these kids because state law and the kids’ parents aren’t on their side.
By the way, in case you’re wondering about the Pilands’ religion, they belong to two religious groups called Free Saints Assembly and Faith Tech Ministries. Both are Christian (Pentecostal). Both accept faith-healing. But, importantly, neither of them prohibit families from seeing doctors; they leave that decision to individuals.
As I’ve said many times before, religious conviction should never be a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, but this couple stands a chance of regaining custody of their three other children all because they belong to a cult that doesn’t think twice about child sacrifice. If their kids come back home to them, there’s a non-zero chance some of them may not live to see adulthood.
(Thanks to Brian for the link. Large portions of this article were posted earlier)