Idaho protects the rights of faith healers. Should it?

A debate rages over the extent of religious freedom in the face of preventable deaths.

 

In March 2011, the county coroner arrived at a Caldwell, Idaho home, to find a pale 22-month-old boy dead in his mother’s arms. The child had been teething, his parents said, when they noticed a rattling cough in his chest. They didn’t take him to a doctor. Instead, they told the coroner, they prayed over him.

The family belongs to the Followers of Christ, a Christian sect, concentrated in Idaho, that doesn’t believe in modern medicine. When they get sick, even when they’re dying, the Followers of Christ avoid doctors and rely solely on prayer.

Six days after the baby’s death, the same coroner was called to a different home across town. There, she found a 14-year-old boy in a brown cotton sleeper — who’d also had a rattling behind his ribs — dead on his mother’s lap. “There were no signs of trauma,” the coroner wrote.

A 2013 report by the Idaho Child Fatality Review team noted that since state agencies don’t compile the necessary data, “it is difficult to estimate the actual number of preventable deaths to children of religious objectors.” But at least 20 times in the past 10 years, southern Idaho coroners have examined the dead children of Followers of Christ members. They died from treatable ailments: Babies had fevers, teenagers had food poisoning, newly born infants gasped for air for hours until their bodies gave up. Or they were stillborn — carried to full-term by mothers who never sought prenatal care.

It’s not illegal to believe in faith healing, to believe that God will heal his loyal believers. But in many states, parents who choose prayer over medicine can be charged with negligent homicide if their child dies.

Not in Idaho.

For the past few years, a fierce debate over religious freedom has raged in Idaho’s Capitol. On one side are lawmakers who fear that rolling back protections for faith healers could ultimately infringe on other religious freedoms, and parents who believe that no government entity should tell them how to raise their children. On the other are children’s health advocates and ex-Followers of Christ who worry that more children will die if something isn’t done — and done fast.

All this is happening at the confluence of several heated national conversations, involving states’ rights, identity politics and religious freedom, one that’s playing out now in the state with life-or-death consequences.

In the Peaceful Valley Cemetery in Idaho, owned by Followers of Christ, 35 percent of the graves from 2002 to 2013 are for minors or stillborn babies.
susankinidaho/Flickr

Idaho, long a beacon for conservatism and libertarianism, has the strongest protections for faith-healers in the West. It is one of just six states nationwide that shield faith-healing parents from felony charges — negligent homicide, manslaughter or capital murder — when their children die of treatable illnesses.

Even as other states, including neighboring Oregon, have rolled back similar protections for faith healers, Idaho has, in some ways, dug in its heels. Last year, in considering a 2017 bill to modify the law, Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, said Idaho shouldn’t be “in the practice of taking away the constitutional rights of a small few in the name of goodness, correctness, medical appropriateness.”

Laws protecting faith healing initially passed in the early 1970s. It took decades for lawmakers to revisit the issue, but so far, no proposed changes have passed.

In October 2013, a 5-day-old baby boy born to Followers of Christ died of a bowel blockage in a Caldwell home. The child’s father told the coroner there that the parents did not seek medical treatment despite the fact that “the baby had not had a bowel movement” and had a scrotum swollen to four times the normal size.

Months later, in early 2014, Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, sought to allow the prosecution of parents who rely on faith-healing “whenever a child’s medical condition may cause death or permanent disability.” But Gannon’s efforts went nowhere. The Idaho Press-Tribune reported that Idaho lawmakers said “there’s no room in this Legislature for debate on the measure.”

Later that year, a baby girl named Fern, in Canyon County, was stillborn. The coroner noted, “It was apparent that she had been dead for a while as the skin was slipping off the entire torso of the body.” Not all stillbirths are preventable, but according to a nonprofit called Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty, which advocates for more stringent laws, there is some evidence that stillbirths are higher among the Followers of Christ. In one Idaho cemetery owned by the sect, 35 percent of the graves from 2002 to 2013 are for minors or stillborn babies.

In 2015, instead of rolling back protections, Idaho legislators reinforced them, passing a “parental rights” bill that ensured parents “have a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, education and control of their children.”

A month later, a full-term baby girl was stillborn in a Payette home. The next year, the governor called for a task force to examine the issue.

Finally, the bill put forward in 2017 failed, and the cycle continued: Lawmakers dismiss attempts to protect children in faith-healing communities, children continue to die.

Months after Heider and 23 other legislators voted down the bill, a 3-year-old boy died in Parma, Idaho.

When the coroner arrived at the remote trailer, the mother said the boy had seizures. He’d thrown up while he was napping, she said, and she couldn’t wake him up again.

Some of the gravestones at Peaceful Valley Cemetery.
susankinidaho/Flickr

Linda Martin has binders filled with coroners’ reports from Idaho dating back decades. An ex-Follower of Christ who left the church as a teenager, Martin has been one of the most determined opponents of Idaho’s legal tolerance of faith-healing. And she fears that with a right-wing president in the White House, lawmakers will continue to do nothing.

Last spring, President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at strengthening protection for religious people in America. “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore,” he said from the White House rose garden. “In my opinion, when Trump got elected it, it actually empowered the conservative religious Republicans in Idaho,” Martin says.

Bruce Wingate, founder of the Protect Idaho Children Foundation, agrees.

Idaho lawmakers “fear that America is under attack, that the religious freedom of America is under attack. They fear gun control is under attack. They fear that every non-conservative point is under attack,” he says. “Idaho, they feel, is one of the refuge centers for preventing this and maintaining freedoms.”

Attempts to reconsider faith-healing protections, he says, become “ideological questions of ‘Do we have freedom of religion or do we not?’ ”

Critics and legal scholars argue that protecting religious freedom is less important than saving the lives of children. “I think an argument that we don’t want to open the floodgates to scrutinizing religions misses the point. No one questions the right of faith healers to believe in faith healing,” says Shaakirah Sanders, an associate professor of law at the University of Idaho. But belief and practice are two different things. “This is really about minors — individuals who don’t have the capacity to make decisions for themselves.”

In the summer of 2016, Daniel Sevy stood at a wooden podium in a red plaid shirt, a kerchief tied around his neck. As a member of the Followers of Christ, a notoriously secretive institution, he was invited by lawmakers to speak about his beliefs to the Children at Risk Faith Healing working group. (Sevy declined High Country News’ multiple requests for an interview after discussions with other church leaders: “We wish our view could be covered in a better manner than has been done so far,” he wrote, “But we lack confidence in all forms of media at this time.”)

“This is a way of life. We live it day to day, every day. If we are injured, sometimes we just pick up and go on,” he told the group. And if it’s more serious? “We refer to the Lord to take care of us.”

In emails obtained by High Country News between Sevy and Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, Sevy was more forceful: “If these people really had children’s welfare at heart, they would support the rights of parents to protect children from a runaway medical profession attempting to bring state oppression to anyone opposing their monopoly!”

Three years ago, when a TV reporter knocked on Sevy’s front door, he told him, “Whenever you try to restrict on person or another in any fashion, then you’re chipping at freedom. Yours and mine.”

In some ways, that’s in line with the libertarian and conservative religious political culture of Idaho. In an essay titled “The Power and the Glory,” Jill Gill, a Boise State University history professor, writes that “faith groups have strongly shaped Idaho’s infrastructure, economics, politics, and cultures.”

Historically “Idaho has always been seen as a refuge of sorts for religious groups that are not mainstream,” she says in an email.

State Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, told High Country News that he has drafted a bill on faith healing for the next session. And Gannon said in a statement that he’ll continue to push for his bill to be considered this year. “I continue to support my bill to require parents to get medical care when a child’s condition may result in permanent injury or death.”

Faith-healers aren’t the bad people they’re made out to be, some legislators say. “They are hard-working, dependable people,” Sen. Patti Anne Lodge said last year. “They take care of each other and they take care of themselves.”

But Linda Martin believes that statements like that miss the point altogether. Idaho legislators, she says, are shielding what amounts to a religious cult — a cult that endangers its youngest and most vulnerable members.

The church is “part of the community. They’re hiding in plain sight,” she says. “You don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors unless you’re behind that closed door.”

And what’s happening behind those doors, she says, is deadly.

Leah Sottile is a Portland, Oregon, freelance journalist whose work appears in the Washington Post, California Sunday Magazine, and Playboy.

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