The last person arrested in Idaho for putting religion ahead of medicine for a sick child might have been Lewis Anis of Kimberly, near Twin Falls, who was charged with refusing to provide medical attention when his 13-year-old daughter died.
The year was 1915.
“Girl dies from neglect” the Idaho Statesman reported at the time. The story said authorities called to the family’s two-room home found the child “in bed, fully dressed and dying.”
“No medical aid had been summoned and strenuous objections were made by the father and mother of the family to the removal of the child to the hospital or to any medical aid being given to her,” the paper reported.
The girl did go to the hospital, but died there. Her father was arrested after an autopsy. Her death certificate said Pearl Anis died of sepsis. The story ended by noting that her father was “a member of a religious cult known as the Followers of Christ, which disapproves of medical attention to the sick.” The paper reported another child death two years later under similar circumstances.
What happened after in the Anis case is likely lost to history. But bear the story in mind next week, more than a century later, when a committee of Idaho lawmakers takes up the question of whether First Amendment religious freedoms are a proper and permissible legal defense to withholding treatment in such cases, even if a child dies.
Now, as then, the practices and beliefs of the Followers of Christ group are central to the debate. The literalist Pentecostal sect has congregations in areas of Owyhee, Canyon, Ada and Twin Falls counties. Some say that more members have moved to Idaho from neighboring Oregon in the years since Idaho’s neighbor to the west eliminated faith-healing exemptions from its criminal statutes.
As with many debates involving faith, the issue gouges sharp societal battle lines here. Idaho, with a large population of Mormons whose beliefs were long held in contempt or ridicule by majority religions, is particularly sensitive to religious freedom concerns.
But child advocates, prosecutors, medical professionals and former members of faith-healing sects with stories to tell have been pressing the case for change. That’s what’s brought Idaho to the current moment.
How did this all start? And will this committee be able to sort it out?
“I’m looking for guidance on this,” said Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, a committee member who is a family physician and former Latah County coroner. “I do think the state has a responsibility to protect children, but protect them from what? Can you look at how a parent is treating a child and know that it’s abuse or not?”
Followers of Christ members are media-shy and typically decline interviews. Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, one of the legislative committee co-chairs, met with members July 6 “so we could both get comfortable with each other.” He said they had agreed to participate in the committee’s work.
Johnson declined to predict what the committee will end up doing.
“What I’m looking for is the needle in the haystack that is going to meet the state’s interests and at the same time protect the rights of individuals,” Johnson said. “I know that it’s going to be a tough issue, and that there are those who think we should just leave everything alone. I respect that. But this working group, we’ve been tasked with looking at this so I want to make sure we give it a hard look and do the job that we’ve been asked to do.”
State standard not new — or old
Idaho’s faith-healing exemption dates to 1972. The year before, the Legislature approved a top-to-bottom rewrite of state penal code, adopting changes recommended under a model advocated by a national legal group seeking to standardize and modernize American laws.
Among other changes, the new code that took effect in January 1972 decriminalized consensual gay sex. That produced an immediate citizen backlash. In the 1972 session, legislators quickly moved to amend parts of the new code. But so many amendments were proposed that lawmakers opted instead for full-scale repeal, driven mostly by the uproar over the gay sex issue. They dumped the new code and reinstated the old one, with immediate effect.
In that same session, after the old code was reinstated, an amendment to laws on family abandonment and nonsupport passed through the House and Senate without debate. The change removed penalties for withholding medical assistance in cases where a parent or guardian “chooses for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone.”
That specific language is boilerplate Christian Science terminology, as the advocacy group Idaho Children notes. In fact, the state Bar Association referred to it as the Christian Science amendment. Two years later, Christian Scientists were involved in creating similar exempting language in federal child abuse protection statute. The 1974 Child Abuse and Prevention and Treatment Act included a provision, reportedly added by Nixon White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, both Christian Scientists, requiring states to enact faith-healing or “spiritual treatment” exemptions to receive federal funds for anti-child abuse programs. Founded in 1879, the church has moderated from its onetime outright rejection of modern medicine and now is said to let members choose for themselves.
In response to the federal law, Idaho enacted three additional changes in 1976 and 1977. State code thus has four provisions involving the exemption: in civil code regarding neglect and emergency treatment in child protection cases; and in criminal code regarding family abandonment and injury to children.
After lobbying, the federal government eliminated the requirement in 1983. Several states have followed suit. Oregon did so in 2011. Idaho has not and remains one of six states with what amounts to a religious defense for child manslaughter, even capital murder, in its code.
Rep. John Gannon, a Boise Democrat, has twice sponsored bills that address one of the criminal code exemptions, in 2014 and again this year. Advocates say this year’s effort was slated for a Senate hearing, although the committee chairman, Lee Heider of Twin Falls, later disputed that. The facts are in question, and Heider came under fire for his handling of the issue and his defense of the exemption on First Amendment grounds.
So how and why was this interim committee formed?
Gov. Butch Otter wrote to legislative leaders in February asking that they study the issue. The request was based on work and findings by governor-appointed Task Force on Children at Risk, whose chairman outlined concerns in a July 2015 letter to the governor. Among the concerns: the number of Idaho children who apparently died after live-saving care was withheld. The task force’s Child Fatality Review Team, in its 2016 report, documents 10 such deaths between 2011 and 2013. Child advocates think there may be more that just haven’t been documented yet.
What is the legal issue and has any court ruled on it?
The Followers of Christ and their supporters, who include prominent Idaho legislators, argue that withholding medical care in favor of prayer is a religious belief protected by the First Amendment. Heider has expressed that view, and Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, also has been outspoken, seeing it as an issue of religious freedom and parent rights.
But child safety advocates cite weaknesses with the religious freedom argument. For one, children of church members are not making their own decisions about their medical care. For another, numerous laws already regulate or outlaw religious practices.
“An adult’s religious freedom crosses the line when it causes death to a child,” says Linda Martin, a native Boisean who left the Followers of Christ church decades ago at 16 and now leads citizen efforts to change Idaho’s laws. She maintains connections within the church and is related to many members.
There’s laws against animal sacrifice, there’s laws against polygamy, and these are bona fide practices in other religions that Idaho has already limited.
Linda Martin, former member of Followers of Christ
As for the courts, Prince v. Massachusetts is a 1944 U.S. Supreme Court case that dealt with a Jehovah’s Witness couple accused of violating that state’s child labor laws by making a nine-year-old girl proselytize in public. The 5-4 ruling said government has wide authority to regulate the treatment of children.
“Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves,” Justice Wiley Rutledge wrote for the majority. “But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.”
That decision cited a 1903 New York court ruling in a case where a father had refused medical treatment for his daughter on religious grounds. The girl died. The earlier case said that freedom of religion did not include the freedom to expose a child “to ill health or death.”
In 2011, Oregon removed the last of its faith-healing legal protections. A county prosecutor lauded the move for making all parents subject to the same rules. One couple was convicted of withholding medical care the same month the new law went into effect, another couple three months later. Oregon’s last prosecution ended in November 2014 with manslaughter convictions for a couple in the death of their 12-year-old daughter from treatable diabetes.
So how will changing the law change things?
Beyond the obvious legal deterrent, proponents say changing the law would end what amounts to a special legal privilege now extended to people of certain religious faiths. It also would likely promote closer monitoring and better tracking of childhood deaths.
It might help anguished parents in faith-healing church navigate between obligations to faith and family, giving them legal cause to resist pressure, shunning and threats that ex-church members say they face.
Joshua Durham, a doctor in family medicine with Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, has spoken to former Followers of Christ members and has personal experience having left a similar Christian sect in Twin Falls in his 20s. When a child comes down with a life-threatening illness, members end up in a double-bind.
“They’ll tell them, ‘If your kid doesn’t get better, it’s because you don’t have enough faith.’ And if they take their kid to the doctor, they don’t have enough faith. ‘You’re going to get punished for that,’” Durham said. “It puts them in these bad situations where they can’t win.”
With a change in the law to remove the exemption, “They would be able to just tell their leader, ‘Well, I don’t want to go to jail.’ ”
Followers of Christ
A small Pentecostal faith with about 1,200 members, founded in Kansas around 1880. The group adheres to a literal interpretation of scripture, including a belief in faith healing. In the 1920s, members began missions from Oklahoma west to Idaho and California, and an offshoot of the main group relocated to Oregon City, Ore., in the 1940s.
In Idaho, there are Followers of Christ churches or congregations in Caldwell, where the Peaceful Valley cemetery is located, as well as Meridian, Marsing, Cambridge, the Castleford-Buhl area and possibly elsewhere.
Interim committee meets this week
The Children at Risk-Faith Healing working group has its first meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 4, in Room EW42 of the Capitol.
Members are: Sens. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston (co-chair); Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton; Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian; Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs; Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow; and Reps. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian (co-chair); Steven Harris, R-Meridian; Clark Kauffman, R-Filer; Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls; John Gannon, D-Boise.