More National Media Attention On Idaho Faith Healing Exemption And Child Deaths

Apr 13, 2016

Credit dion gillard / Flickr Creative Commons

Twenty-year-old Boise resident Mariah Walton told the Guardian U.S. she wants to see her parents prosecuted.

“They deserve it. And it might stop others,” Walton said.

The news site owned by British Guardian Media posted a story Wednesday about Idaho’s faith healing law and the untold number of child deaths it has contributed to.

Walton was raised in a north Idaho family that was part of an offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While most Mormons embrace modern medicine, Walton’s family did not. Because of their beliefs, an easily treated childhood heart condition turned into irreparable damage to her heart and lungs and a lifetime of suffering.

In most states, Walton’s parents could be prosecuted for not seeking medical care for their child. But as the Guardian reports, Idaho is one of six states that still grants exemptions from charges like manslaughter and neglect because of people’s religious beliefs.

Though Walton’s parents were fundamentalist Mormons, the Guardian article largely focuses on the Followers of Christ, a Pentecostal sect that migrated to rural Canyon County because of Idaho’s faith healing exemption.

The Followers of Christ and Idaho's faith healing law have received national and international media attention before.  Idaho policy makers have been aware of the issue for a few years.

“In Canyon County, just west of the capital, the sect’s Peaceful Valley cemetery is full of graves marking the deaths of children who lived a day, a week, a month. Last year, a taskforce set up by Idaho governor Butch Otter estimated that the child mortality rate for the Followers of Christ between 2002 and 2011 was 10 times that of Idaho as a whole.” –The Guardian U.S.

That task force recommended Idaho’s religious exemptions be amended so they would not apply if a child’s death or severe disability is imminent. In Idaho’s legislative session that ended last month, Rep. John Gannon (D-Boise) introduced a bill to make those changes. But it was shelved by Senate Health and Welfare committee chair Lee Heider. The Guardian article is highly critical of Heider, calling his response to its questions, “a welter of contradictions and bluster.”

“After telling the Guardian that no bill was lodged (John Gannon confirmed that he did, as was reported in local media in February) and that he had been told by the attorney general and the Canyon County prosecuting attorney that the laws did not need to change (both men deny saying this), Heider took refuge in the US constitution.

“Republicans didn’t feel the need to change the laws. We believe in the first amendment to the constitution. I don’t think that states have a right to interfere in religions.”

When pressed on the fact that children are dying unnecessarily as a result of exemptions, Heider makes an odd comparison.

“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.”

Heider blamed outsiders for stirring the pot on this issue, even challenging the Guardian’s right to take an interest in the story, asking “what difference does it make to you?” and adding “is the United States coming in and trying to change Idaho’s laws?” He confirmed that he attended a Followers of Christ service last year – a rare privilege for an outsider from a group that refuses to speak to reporters.” – The Guardian U.S.

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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