The faith-healing practices of the Followers of Christ church are at the heart of Idaho’s debate over faith-based exemptions in cases of child neglect.
“I have complete confidence in your freedom to make your choice for medicine, and I would have every hope that it is effective for you,” Dan Sevy, a member of the Followers of Christ, told a panel of Idaho lawmakers. “However, we believe that pharmaceuticals and medicine (are) a product from Satan.”
Addressing concerns that faith-healing practices, protected by Idaho law, are permitting children to die from medical neglect, lawmakers are reviewing possible changes. A governor-appointed panel has identified 10 such possible deaths over a three-year period.
Wednesday’s hearing was the first time a church member had addressed the subject in a public forum. Sevy, of Caldwell, was supported by a half-dozen other church members.
“Somehow we need to work together on this,” Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, who co-chairs the committee, told Sevy. “How will you balance your interest against the state’s interest?”
Sevy responded: “We both want to protect the child, so we have no conflict on that point. It appears that conflict (centers) on the definition of neglect. … If you were to institute state-licensed medical care as the only form of treatment, all else is by definition neglect, then that is unacceptable.”
Sevy said members of the church choose to forgo medical treatment based on their belief that life “extends beyond this earth, and when it’s all over we believe that all this will have been a blink of an eye and what was all the fuss.”
The three-hour hearing began with state officials outlining for the committee existing procedures for responding to reported cases of child neglect. Roxanne Printz of the state Department of Health and Welfare told the committee that 13 of some 4,000 substantiated cases of child neglect handled by the department in 2015 involved medical neglect. She did not know how many of those might have involved religious exemptions because the department doesn’t track it.
There is no case law in Idaho involving the state’s faith-healing exemptions. In civil matters, Idaho courts can in some cases order medical treatment for sick children, but prosecutors have trouble bringing criminal cases because of inconsistencies in the law. The faith-healing exemption effectively gives parents who claim it a legal loophole that other nonpracticing caregivers don’t have.
“We would like to see this exemption lifted,” said Jean Fisher, a deputy Ada County prosecutor and chief of its Special Crimes Unit, who also spoke on behalf of Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association. “I don’t think the right of a parent should supersede the medical rights of the child.”
Linda Martin, a former Followers of Christ church member who has campaigned to change Idaho’s law since 2013, echoed that opinion.
“A child should not have to drown in their own fluids while people are praying over them,” she said.
The exempting language appears in both the state’s criminal and civil codes. Committee chairman Johnson said the panel would look at criminal code at its next meeting. A date has not been scheduled.