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Shawn Vestal: Another year, another chance to fix Idaho’s fatal faith-healing protections

Peaceful Valley Cemetery, on Riverside Drive near Lake Lowell with an expansive view of the Owyhees, is where most Followers of Christ bury their children and family members. (Katherine Jones/Idaho Statesman/TNS)  (Katherine Jones/Idaho Stateman/TNS)

More than seven years ago, Boise attorney Kirt Naylor signed off on a rallying cry to defend Idaho’s children.

In a letter to then-Gov. Butch Otter, Naylor and the rest of the 17 members of the Governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk, outlined a child mortality rate in a Canyon County faith-healing community that was 10 times greater than the state average.

The committee, including doctors, judges and citizens from across the state, urged Otter to revise the state’s religious exemption to child abuse and neglect laws, which protect parents from civil or criminal repercussions if their children suffer or die as a result of their religious beliefs.

“Our First Amendment right to religious freedom does not include the right to abuse or neglect children,” the letter read.

“In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, ‘The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or child to communicable disease, or the latter to ill health or death. … Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow that they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children … ”

And yet year after year, more martyred children of the Followers of Christ Church are buried from treatable or preventable causes – from sepsis, pneumonia, diabetes and other conditions that most children survive – and year after year, attempts to stand up for them in the Statehouse come to naught.

“It’s disappointing something more hasn’t been done,” said Naylor, a former prosecutor in Ada County and longtime volunteer in the state’s Court-Appointed Guardian Ad Litem program for abused children. He served on the task force from 2000 to 2016.

“I believe there can be some form of agreement where religious freedoms are protected but vulnerable children are also protected from severe illness and death.”

That agreement has been elusive. And as the new legislative session gets rolling, the early signs are that it will remain so.

In the task force’s letter, written in July 2015, they noted the grossly high proportion of children’s graves in the Peaceful Valley Cemetery, near the small town of Marsing. The cemetery serves the Followers of Christ Church, who do not believe in using modern medicine.

Between 2002 and 2011, the letter says, state records show that 3.37% of all deaths in Idaho occurred among children. During the same period, 130 people were buried at the cemetery; 40 of those deaths, or 31%, were children or stillbirths.

Since then, other efforts have been made to try and make an accurate counting of the deaths of children among the church members. The Idaho Statesman found 19 instances of child deaths since 2015, in an investigative story in 2020 and an update this month. Other journalists have covered the story, as well, and a documentary about the Followers of Christ, “No Greater Law,” was released in 2018.

The Idaho Legislature has spent the last couple of sessions puffing itself up as the most “pro-life” of them all. This year is off to a nutty start on that front with the culture-war exertions of its newest counter-balance to intelligent lawmaking, Sagle’s Scott Herndon.

Herndon proposed a measure that would force children to take advantage of the “opportunity” to bear their rapists’ babies, by eliminating the exceptions for rape and incest built into the state’s new, draconian anti-abortion laws. The measure was DOA, but it got a committee discussion.

Here is how Herndon responded when asked about decency of forcing a teenage girl to bear a child if she were raped by a father or an uncle: “Some people could describe the situation that you’re talking about as the opportunity to have the child under those terrible circumstances, if the rape actually occurred.”

The silver lining, if you will. The idea that this got even a brief airing in the Capitol chambers, while no one is rising up to put a stop to the ongoing deaths of children at the Followers of Christ Church, tells you a lot about the current state of “pro-life” politics in Idaho.

Over and over again, Idaho lawmakers have simply supported the rights of parents to religiously neglect their children to death. Legislative proposals to change that usually don’t even make it to a full vote.

“I personally believe in prayer and medical intervention but I cannot interfere with a parent’s right to worship as their faith and morals direct them,” Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, who represented the district where the church is located and was a staunch opponent of removing the faith-healing exemption, said in 2018.

Even those Republican lawmakers who might have qualms seem scared to even bring it up, and in a Senate that has veered even harder to the far right – where the pandemic has driven the commitment to medical quackery to new heights – we probably shouldn’t hold our breath for progress.

The new chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, where such legislation has tended to die in past years, described the issue to the Statesman recently as “a very complicated, touchy issue.”

In what universe is this very complicated?

In what world touchy?

Many states offer some protection for faith healing, but only six grant full immunity to parents for the death and serious injury of a child. (Washington has a peculiarly narrow exemption for Christian Science faith-healing.)

Good, decent Idahoans have been crying out for change for a long time now. Naylor and many others want lawmakers to protect children here, and many of those calling for change are not at all opposed to faith healing, per se.

“I believe in faith as a means of healing,” said Naylor, who is LDS. “I believe in medical healing, too. But if a child is likely to die imminently or to be severely injured imminently, something has to be done to protect the rights of the child.

“In these cases, the child doesn’t have a voice.”

Idaho lawmakers have had a long time to change that.

And they have another chance right now.

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