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Shawn Vestal: Idaho lawmakers stand up again for the religious right of parents to let their children die

UPDATED: Tue., April 25, 2017

Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue speaks against faith-healing legislation on March 20, 2017, at the Idaho Capitol. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue speaks against faith-healing legislation on March 20, 2017, at the Idaho Capitol. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)

How many dead children per year is the going price for religious freedom?

One? Three? Seven?

In Idaho, it’s 2 1/2, and a lot of lawmakers seem to consider it a good deal. That’s based on the 10 children in Idaho who died between 2013 and 2016, according to the Idaho Child Death Review Team. It’s likely the deaths are undercounted. “It is difficult to estimate the actual number of preventable deaths to children of religious objectors,” the team dryly noted.

Since 2012, the team has tried – in the face of limitations including a reluctance to cooperate by some individuals and agencies – to track how many kids die in the Gem State because their parents believe modern medicine is evil. The number is particularly important given the reluctance of the Idaho Legislature to do anything about it, deferring instead to the right of a parent to cause their own child’s death, as long as they do so religiously.

Idaho’s religiously free parents have allowed infants to die of meconium aspiration, intestinal blockages and infections, among other causes. The team “determined that each of these deaths may have been prevented with proper and timely medical treatment.” Many of the deaths are associated with a religious group near Boise that believes medical care is evil; so far this year, three children have died in that community, known as the Followers of Christ, according to news reports.

What do you call parents like these? Most states would call them criminals. Idaho lawmakers call them deeply, sincerely religious. Year after year, Idaho lawmakers reject proposals to take down the state’s protections for parents who religiously let their kids die of sepsis, or failure to treat diabetes, or any other treatable ailment.

Those religious beliefs are deep indeed. Six feet deep.

“It’s an atrocity,” Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue told the Los Angeles Times recently. “If it was cattle being treated like this, no medical care, in distress, if you saw that from the street, we’d have a search warrant and we’d be kicking down doors.”

Donahue has been investigating child deaths among the Followers of Christ for years, and is pressing the state to change its law, investigate the deaths more thoroughly, and hold adults criminally liable when they let kids die needlessly.

The state, via the Legislature, keeps declining to do so. In the recently concluded session, a bill failed that tried to strike a weaselly middle ground between protecting kids from dying and protecting parents who religiously let them die.

In the course of arguing over this legislation, lawmaker after lawmaker acted stunningly oblivious and cruel, boasting about their own religious bona fides to justify their failure to protect the state’s children from zealots. They seemed to view allowing a child to die as an exercise of freedom akin to refusing to bake a gay wedding cake – just something a believer’s gotta do.

Sen. Chuck Winder, a Boise Republican, said, “Christ healed a blind man with spittle and dirt. Was that what healed him? It was because of faith.”

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said, “I believe in the power of prayer. I believe the Lord God Almighty can be involved. I believe he has, and will heal people.”

Sen. Brent Hill said, “Most of us believe God can intervene. We pray.”

These dead children lacked faith, spittle and dirt.

The collective shrugging of Idaho’s lawmakers on this question, year after year, exceeds the disgusting. It is backward and destructive. Whatever you want to say about an individual’s rights to their beliefs, Idaho is treating children – who have no say about the crackpot beliefs their parents may hold – as property whose lives are less valuable than animals, so long as their abuser quotes the Bible.

Last year, when a proposal to lift the religious shield died in committee, Sen. Lee Heider stuck up for the Followers of Christ as “very nice people” in an interview with the Guardian newspaper.

“Republicans didn’t feel the need to change the laws,” he said. “We believe in the First Amendment to the Constitution. I don’t think that states have a right to interfere in religions.”

He added, “Are we going to stop Methodists from reading the New Testament? Are we going to stop Catholics receiving the sacraments? That’s what these people believe in. They spoke to me and pointed to a tremendous number of examples where Christ healed people in the New Testament.”

Yes, letting your infant choke to death on maconium is a lot like receiving the sacrament.

State Rep. Christie Perry, R-Nampa, looked at it from the parents’ point of view.

“They are comforted by the fact that they know their child is in heaven,” Perry said. “If I want to let my child be with God, why is that wrong?”

Is that the stupidest thing an Idaho lawmaker has said about these kids, who have been failed so atrociously by their parents and their state? It might be, but there are a lot of contenders.

Consider Terreton’s Jeff Siddoway, who reminded everyone this year that those dead kids really are quite fortunate, in the grand scheme of things.

“Those children that have gone on … they have it made.”

If only all children could be so lucky.

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