Two Oregon faith healers face criminal charges for withholding life-saving treatment from their infant daughter — and you can almost hear the wailing emerging from Boise.
What a tragedy, these lawmakers will say.
For the parents.
After all, they were merely following a sincerely held religious belief.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
In fact, that is the law in Idaho. Only Virginia has as deep a legal loophole for parents who neglect, abuse, injure or kill their children under the practice of faith healing.
Had 24-year-old Sarah Mitchell and 21-year-old Travis Lee Mitchell joined members of their Followers of Christ Church sect and moved to Canyon County, no one would have intervened when their twin daughters were born prematurely in a grandparents’ home attended by midwives, relatives and fellow church members.
When a baby named Gennifer died because her lungs were underdeveloped, the Mitchells could have avoided contacting the coroner.
As the Los Angeles Times reported recently, former Ada County Coroner Edwin Sonnenberg said he rarely got notified of stillbirths or child deaths that occurred among these religious zealots.
Even when a coroner and law enforcement officers are called, they’re little more than visitors.
“They’ll just stare at you, not saying a word,” Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue told the Times. “And at that point, our crime scene is gone. All we have is a body. We don’t know whether they killed the kid, whether they starved the kid to death — we don’t know.”
Any prosecutor who takes an interest in the case will run into this law: “Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect the tenets of any church or religious belief.”
Idaho’s Child Fatality Review Team tied 10 child deaths during three years to parents who relied on faith healing to the exclusion of medical treatment.
Donahue thinks it occurs even more frequently.
None of which has swayed Idaho’s lawmakers.
Even Lewiston Sen. Dan Johnson’s modest reform bill died on a 24-11 vote in March.
“I can tell you they are hard-working, dependable people,” said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, who relied upon Followers of Christ spokesman Dan Sevy’s band to provide entertainment at one of her campaign fundraisers. “They have a right to live as the law allows them without interference, that is what our Constitution [grants] them.”
Joining her in that assessment was Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Lee Heider of Twin Falls, who in the past locked faith healing reform bills in his desk.
“We have to protect those rights from those that would take them away,” Heider said. “And I believe this bill is taking a right.”
But not so in Oregon, where first in 1999 and again in 2011, state lawmakers removed faith healing as a legal defense to child abuse and neglect.
So while responding to the call about Gennifer, an Oregon medical examiner noted a surviving twin named Evelyn was also in distress.
Facing criminal prosecution in the death of one daughter, the Mitchells were persuaded to get their little girl some help — presumably standard treatment for prematurely born babies with under-developed lungs such as medicine to ease her breathing, possibly oxygen and an incubator.
Were Evelyn born in the Gem State, she’d probably be another statistic.
Because she was born in Oregon, she is alive today.
Why is her rescue — rather than the prosecution of her parents and their constitutional rights to practice religion — not the story here?
You’d think the fact Oregon’s law saved her would give Idaho lawmakers such as Lodge and Heider some pause.
And how about naming the next attempt to repeal Idaho’s faith healing loophole “Evelyn’s law”?