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Lawmakers scrutinize Idaho’s religious exemption that protects rights of religious sect amid high child death rates

The Idaho state Capitol in Boise (Betsy Z. Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE – Idaho is just one of two states that offers parents and caregivers a religious exemption from being charged with child abuse, neglect, child injury and manslaughter.

But that law, 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,” said Mary Jo Beig, an attorney with the Idaho attorney general’s office who has dealt with child protection matters since 1991.

A 10-member panel of lawmakers heard testimony Thursday, including 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. He said it’s clear the state has an obligation to protect children; “It’s just a question … of how to do that.”

One of those who spoke at the hearing, Followers of Christ member Dan Sevy, said he believes in healing by prayer only and won’t change his practices even if the law changes.

“We believe that pharmaceuticals and medicine is a product from Satan. Proof can be found in one of the lost books of Enoch,” said Sevy, who lives near Marsing, Idaho. He said he equates medicine to “witchcraft and sorcery,” and that “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.”

A former member of the Followers of Christ sect, Linda Martin, 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,” said Martin, who left Followers of Christ when she was 16. “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. Virginia is the only other state that, like Idaho, has four faith-healing exemptions – for child abuse, neglect, child injury and manslaughter.

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.

A 2015 Governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk concluded that Idaho should amend its religious exemptions “to exclude them from application where a child’s death or severe disability is imminent.”

“Religious freedoms must be protected, but vulnerable children must also be appropriately sheltered from unnecessary harm and death,” a report from that task force said.

Kirtlan Naylor, chairman of the task force, calculated that the Followers of Christ group had a child mortality rate of 31 percent from 2002 to 2011. Idaho as a state has a child mortality rate of 3.37 percent. He based that calculation 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.

Another state group, the Idaho Child Fatality Review Team, published its third annual report this month, reviewing child deaths in 2013. 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-chairman 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.