As Idaho legislators consider a bill that would protect children from egregious “faith healing” medical neglect, some have a lot to say about religious freedom.

Sen. Lee Heider, who chairs the Sen. Health and Welfare Committee, has repeatedly stated that he opposes a bill that would make it illegal for adults to deny children necessary medical care for religious reasons.

“I don’t find fault in the fact that, because of their religious beliefs, we should prosecute them if a child dies. You know, it’s a first amendment right, the freedom of religion.”

“I think everybody cares about the health of children,” Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter told the media, “but we also have to remember the very first amendment to our Constitution. . . . No. 1 was religion. . . . I think it’s important to remember that they didn’t do ‘em alphabetically.”

Given this allegiance to protecting people’s right to freedom of religion, I wonder if legislators would support the legalization of all parenting decisions made in the name of faith that also jeopardize children’s health and safety.

For example, last October, members of the Word of Life Church in upstate New York attempted to “spiritually correct” two teenage boys by beating them throughout the night. The beatings—allegedly performed or witnessed by a handful of church members, including the boys’ parents and the church’s pastor—led to the death of one of the boys.

Some members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have sexually abused girls through the practice of underage “spiritual” marriages. In 2011, eleven men in the FLDS were convicted of sexual abuse, including sect leader Warren Jeffs who is currently serving a sentence of life in prison in Texas.

Are legislators in Idaho ready to create a carve-out for religious groups that physically and sexually abuse children, as they have done for those who medically neglect children?

What about the centuries-old Jewish practice of Metzitzah B’Peh which is performed by rabbis of very conservative communities? This ritual, which occurs after circumcision. involves the rabbi sucking the cut penis. As a result, 13 newborns in New York City have contracted herpes since 2000. Two babies died and at least two suffered brain damage.

If a large Orthodox Jewish community were to move into Idaho and practice this ritual, would public officials allow it?

Some people believe their religion requires them to genitally cut young girls. Others deny their children an education on religious grounds. Both are illegal in Idaho. Are lawmakers ready to repeal those laws?

I think it’s safe to say the answer to these questions is no. Why? Because legislators know they have a duty to protect all children from abuse and neglect, regardless of whether such harm is justified with religious belief.

The line between religious rights and children’s rights was drawn back in 1944, when the US Supreme Court determined that “the right to practice religious freely” doesn’t include the right to expose a child to “ill-health or death.”

The importance of setting limits on religious freedom isn’t lost on Idaho Sen. Pro Tempore Brent Hill. A staunch believer in preserving and protecting religious freedoms, Sen. Hill is well aware that such freedom must be limited in a civil society.

“With these freedoms come also responsibilities,” says Sen. Hill on his website. “Religious liberty should never be used to endanger public health and safety or discriminate against others. True religion will always lift—fostering love, civility and compassion, even for those with differing viewpoints.”

Idaho legislators and Governor Otter should take a page from the playbook of one of their own and do what’s necessary to protect the health and safety of their most vulnerable citizens. Using faith to harm innocent children is not loving, compassionate, or civil.

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Janet Heimlich is an award-winning journalist and the author of "Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment," the first book to fully examine the issue of child abuse and neglect enabled by religious belief. In 2012, Janet founded the Child-Friendly Faith Project whose mission is to share knowledge and build community around the issue of religious child maltreatment (RCM) and advocate for and empower those whose lives are impacted by RCM. She also sits on the board of directors of Foundation Beyond Belief and co-hosts the podcast, "Parenting Beyond Belief." Prior to becoming a child advocate, Janet was a freelance reporter for National Public Radio, work for which she won numerous journalism awards; she has also written nonfiction articles for such publications as Texas Monthly and the Texas Observer.

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