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Religious beliefs and autopsies.

Religious customs and intrusive postmortem procedures collided in the separate deaths of two American Indians in northeastern Minnesota car crashes in February. Their families are members of Ojibwe and Chippewa bands that perform ceremonies soon after death and forbid the desecration of a body.

The St. Louis County Medical Examiner ordered autopsies in both cases, based on the office's established practice of doing the procedure in all homicides, fatal car accidents, workplace accidents and most child deaths. The families got court orders in both cases to release the bodies without autopsies on religious grounds. The coroner complied, but the families argued they were denied their right to mourn in traditional ways. (The coroner, whose contract talks broke down after his handling of the cases came under fire, no longer works for the county.)

In response, Minnesota Senator Tony Lourey (D) introduced a bill to allow families to object to autopsies on religious grounds, but let judges order them to be performed in a minimally intrusive manner when there was "compelling state interest."

"There really was a disconnect between our statute and a constitutional right," Lourey says. "It's a very emotional conversation." When Lourey's bill went into effect July 1, the state joined several others--California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island--with similar religious protections.

American Indian beliefs are not the only ones that might conflict with state laws, says Brian Rusche, of the Minnesota Joint Religious Legislative Council. Amish, Hmong, Muslims and some Orthodox Jews also object to invasive autopsies.

The details and politics of the matter remain tricky. Deaths that must be reported to and investigated by the medical examiner vary by state. Generally, when an autopsy is required, a medical examiner does not need consent from the decedent's next of kin before doing the procedure. Religious freedom legislation can raise the ire of church-state-separation watchdogs and LGBT advocates who fear legal protections offer a license to discriminate. And even supporters of autopsy exemptions acknowledge a need for limits, particularly in cases of suspicious death. But disputes, they say, can be circumvented when concerns are addressed through open dialogue between officials and families.

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Title Annotation:Trends
Author:Toth, Zita
Publication:State Legislatures
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Nov 27, 2015
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