There are those who believe that the state has a responsibility to protect the health and safety of its children, including those who are being raised by parents or guardians with extreme beliefs about faith healing. And there are those who believe that religious freedom is so critically important, that parents who religiously oppose medical care may refuse to take their child to a doctor even if it means that child suffers, becomes very sick or permanently disabled, or dies.
But I’m not directing this blog post to either of those groups. Rather, I’m speaking to the undecided, those who aren’t sure which camp they’re in, because they believe in both freedom of religion and a child’s right to be protected from abuse and neglect.
I’d like to tell you how we feel about it.
You see, the Child-Friendly Faith Project firmly believes in both of those things. We believe every adult has a right to worship as he or she chooses. And we believe that states have the responsibility to intervene when a child’s health or life is in peril because the adults who are primarily responsible for their care are failing in those duties.
So where do we draw that line? Does the state get to intervene to save the life of a child if that child is being denied medical care on religious grounds?
I’ve listened to the many reasons given by Senator Lee Heider, Chairman of the Health and Welfare Committee, for keeping the laws as they are. Even though he has drafted at least one “RS” (a document that is sent to a committee to be voted out as a bill) that would have improved medical protections for children, he now believes that parents in the Followers of Christ who allow their children to die from medical neglect shouldn’t be prosecuted. Sen. Heider has repeatedly stated that those parents love their children and don’t mean to harm them. He says Idaho doesn’t “force” parents to take their children to a doctor, and so we shouldn’t do the same to the Followers. And Sen. Heider says, no law should “target” a particular religious group.
Some of these arguments are really just distractions from the issue at hand. Child abuse statutes tend not to address a perpetrator’s state of mind. For example, there is no exemption for abusive or neglectful parents who are found to love their children. In fact, parents can be held accountable for harming their children, even if they didn’t intend to commit that harm. It’s simply not true that Idaho doesn’t “force” parents to get their children needed medical care. Indeed, if a parent fails to provide that care, the courts have a right to intervene and ensure that the child gets treated. That is to say, it does for parents who don’t believe that only prayer can cure their children of serious illnesses.
Does repealing religious exemptions “target” the Followers of Christ? If it feels that way, that’s only because changing the laws threatens to alter the distinct privileges that have been extended to the Followers and other faith-healing groups. It would mean that adults in those sects would be required to follow the same rules as all other parents in Idaho when it comes to providing medical care to children who show obvious symptoms of a serious illness. If that constitutes targeting a religious group, then so be it.
But you know, we child advocates really don’t see things from that perspective. Rather, we see situations through the lens of child protection, or one could say, the health and welfare of children. In looking through that lens, what we now see is a landscape in which legislators have concluded that the health and welfare of children born into the Followers of Christ is not all that important. Putting it another way, the state of Idaho has decided that those children should be granted fewer protections than the rest of the state’s children.
We disagree with this view, because we believe that the health and lives of all children are equally valuable. To be blunt, legislators and governors don’t get to play God and decide which children get to live or die.
And so, in deciding where you Idahoans stand on this issue, we ask you this: Are the lives of children born into the Followers of Christ less worthy than all other children in your state? Do you believe in having an uneven playing field, in which certain children receive proper protections against medical neglect and all other children are denied those protections based on the religious beliefs of their caretakers?
Or do you favor laws that aim to protect all children as equals—laws that allow every child in Idaho the chance to grow up and live a healthy life?