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Eye On Boise

Lawmakers scrutinize Idaho’s faith-healing exemption from child neglect, manslaughter charges

Idaho state Capitol dome (Betsy Z. Russell)
Idaho state Capitol dome (Betsy Z. Russell)

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By Betsy Z. Russell

BOISE – Idaho’s religious exemption from charges of child abuse, neglect, child injury and manslaughter, passed in the 1970s to accommodate faith-healing groups, came under close scrutiny at a legislative hearing Thursday.

“The religious exemption is the only place in the child protective act that places the parent’s right before the child,” Mary Jo Beig, an attorney with the Idaho Attorney General’s office who has dealt with child protection matters since 1991, told a 10-member legislative panel on faith healing and children at risk.

The lawmakers heard powerful testimony from an array of presenters, from an Ada County prosecutor who told of children suffering needlessly and prosecutors unable to act, to a faith-healing proponent who shared his deeply held beliefs.

“It’s a heartfelt community, and that’s one of the issues, is how do we do these things and respect our communities?” said Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, shortly after the hearing wrapped up with testimony from Followers of Christ member Dan Sevy. “The state, I think, clearly has an obligation to protect children. It’s just a question … of how to do that.”

Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “This is a complex issue. I learned some things about statutes today that I was unaware of.” He said he needs more information about the extent of the problem. “I don’t know yet where we’re going to go with this,” he said.

Sevy, who lives near Marsing, Idaho, said he believes in healing by prayer only, and cited concerns about deaths from medical errors. “The medical profession, I understand, they want to help,” he said. “Their intentions are good. But our intentions are good. Life extends beyond this earth.”

Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, told Sevy that he, too, is a person of faith, but he believes that medicine is among God’s gifts. He asked Sevy why he wouldn’t want to make use of it.

Sevy responded, “We believe that pharmaceuticals and medicine is a product from Satan. Proof can be found in one of the lost books of Enoch.” He said he equates medicine to “witchcraft and sorcery,” and said, “Those who imbibe in those things will not attain a home in heaven. That is our belief. … We do disagree with medicine and believe that it puts our very eternal lives in jeopardy.”

He added, “Our goal is eternity, it isn’t here.” Sevy , 52, who has five children, three of whom survive, and one grandchild, said, “If the statute is changed, I’ll not change anything I do.”

But Linda Martin, a former member of the Followers of Christ who left the church at age 16, pleaded with lawmakers to remove the religious exemption, saying many in the church will follow the law.

“You will help young people, young couples that have children that will take a child to the doctor – they can say it’s the law, we have to,” she said. “They won’t have to worry about their parents shunning them. They won’t have to worry about the church turning on them.”

Idaho is one of just seven states with a faith-healing exemption from its manslaughter laws, according to data submitted to the panel by legislative staffers. Many more states have faith-healing exemptions from civil liability for abuse, neglect or failure to report; smaller numbers have exemptions from misdemeanor or felony criminal charges for non-support, neglect or injury to a child. Idaho has exemptions in all four areas. Only one other state, Virginia, has all four exemptions.

Washington has religious exemptions from both civil liability and felony charges of child neglect, but not misdemeanor neglect charges or manslaughter.

Jean Fisher, special crimes unit chief for the Ada County prosecutor’s office – a position she’s held for more than 20 years – shared three tragic stories with the lawmakers about children denied medical care by their parents on religious grounds. A 16-year-old died; two 8-year-old girls suffered terribly. The parents weren’t charged.

“We would like to see this exemption lifted,” Fisher told the panel, speaking both on her own behalf as an Ada County prosecutor and on behalf of the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

The 10-member joint legislative panel was given a copy of a July 1, 2015 report to Gov. Butch Otter from the Governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk, in which task force Chair Kirtlan Naylor reported that the task force had concluded that Idaho should amend its religious exemptions “to exclude them from application where a child’s death or severe disability is imminent.”

“The Governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk has reviewed these matters and is concerned for the well-being and protection of Idaho’s children in circumstances where children have no voice in medical choice,” Naylor wrote. “Religious freedoms must be protected, but vulnerable children must also be appropriately sheltered from unnecessary harm and death.”

He calculated, based on comparisons between Idaho vital statistics and burials at the Peaceful Valley Cemetery in Canyon County, where members of the Followers of Christ are buried, that the group had a child mortality rate of 31 percent from 2002 to 2011, compared to a statewide rate of 3.37 percent, “or about 10 times the Idaho pediatric population as a whole.”

This month, another state group, the Idaho Child Fatality Review Team, published its third annual report, this one reviewing child deaths in 2013, and it found that five Idaho children died that year because their parents’ religious beliefs prevented them from seeking medical treatment. That brought the total over three years of reviews to 10 Idaho children, although the report noted that not all such deaths are reported.

Gov. Butch Otter asked legislative leaders to form the joint committee, after legislation was proposed unsuccessfully for the past few years to lift or amend Idaho’s religious exemptions.

Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, co-chair of the committee, said he received numerous emails, calls and visits from people, including other lawmakers, “stating that we should just leave things alone.” But he said he thought the panel’s first meeting went well.

He met with Sevy and other Followers of Christ members over dinner on July 6. “I told them that we had a job to do, and that it’s very important that they be involved in that process,” Johnson said. “They agreed to that. We’re going to give this a hard look.”

The committee likely will hold its next meeting in late August or early September, Johnson said.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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