I’m going to go slightly off-topic today because I think this case is worth it. It involves the intersection of parental rights and freedom of religion. And it is at least tangentially related to probate and estate planning since this type of issue could have a bearing on who to name as a guardian of a minor child.
Winters v. Brown  involved a court dispute between unmarried parents over the mother’s views on health care. As stated by the court:
Mother is a chiropractor and a proponent of holistic medicine. A tenet of her religious beliefs is that God has provided the human body with an innate immune system that enables the body to heal itself. Mother believes that anything introduced into the body to prevent disease or treat illness is against the will of God. Specifically, Mother opposes vaccinations.
Father, on the other hand, thought that the child should “receive traditional medical care, including well baby exams, blood draws, urinalysis, and vaccinations.”
The trial court had to decide who had the ultimate responsibility for the child’s health care. The law cannot restrict exposure of a child to his or her parent’s beliefs and practices. But Florida recognizes an exception to this rule if there is “a clear, affirmative showing that these religious activities will be harmful to the child.” The trial court’s job was to apply these principles to this case.
Both the mother and father had put on expert testimony in the trial. The father’s expert witness testified, not surprisingly, that vaccinations were very safe and effective and that all sorts of calamity would ensue if children were not vaccinated on the prescribed schedule. The mother’s expert witness testified that one in five children in the U.S. suffer from neurodevelopmental disorders that may have been caused by vaccinations. He concluded that “it’s less harmful for a child not to be vaccinated than it is for a child to be vaccinated.”
After hearing the expert testimony, the trial court determined that the father should be allowed to make decisions regarding the minor’s health care and vaccinations. The court stated:
The issue . . . is not one of simply exposing the minor child to the mother’s religious beliefs and practices, it involves an issue that could cause physical and serious harm to the minor child. When parents cannot agree, the court is called upon to break the impasse, and that decision must be made in the best interests of the minor child.
On review, District Court’s job was to determine if the trail court’s decision was supported by competent, substantial evidence. Under this standard of review, the District Court can’t substitute its judgment for that of the trail court. If there was a basis for the trial court’s decision, it will stand.
Without much comment, the District Court affirmed the trial court’s decision, claiming that it was supported by competent, substantial evidence. But was it? Keep in mind that, for the decision to have been upheld, the “competent, substantial evidence” must have been enough to support “a clear, affirmative showing that these religious activities will be harmful to the child.”
In this case, the mother put on testimony to from a credible expert in the field that the immunizations could actually be harmful. And there is a bourgeoning field of research to indicate just that. The issue was not whether it could be conclusively proved that the immunizations were or were not harmful, but whether it could be clearly and affirmatively demonstrated that the mother’s health care practices would be harmful to the child. Given the conflicting testimony involved, not to mention the mother’s educational background, can we really say that there was a “clear, affirmative showing” that going without vaccinations would be harmful to the child? Or is this another example of the tyranny of the majority in action? I think the District Court dropped the ball on this one.
One wonders how this would have played out in the eighteenth century, when leeching was still an accepted form of practice by the medical community. History has shown that the medical consensus has proven wrong in many cases, most often when it defies common sense. And this hasn’t been remedied by scientific advances. Even within today’s medical community, debates continue about the overuse of cesarean sections, tonsillectomy, appendectomy, and various other procedures that may be considered “routine” in one decade and unnecessary or harmful in the next.
In my opinion, this was an unnecessary infringement on the mother’s religious liberty and parental rights. I know families who have foregone immunizations and have children that are as healthy as any. And I had an estate planning client recently whose adult daughter had been institutionalized all of her life due to a neurodevelopmental disorder that was caused by her vaccinations. I get nervous when I see religious beliefs infringed just because they are a little outside the box. Given the religious liberties and parental rights at stake in this case, the District Court was obliged to look at this a little more closely than it appears to have done.
 36 Fla. L. Weekly 175a (Fla. 4th DCA 2011).
 Mesa v. Mesa, 652 So.2d 456, 457 (Fla. 4th DCA 1995) (emphasis added).