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Faith-Healing Related Deaths of Children Begs the Question: Where Do We Draw the Line on Religious Liberties?

Religious Liberties

The state of Idaho has the highest rate of child mortality due to faith-related medical neglect in the nation. Three religious groups, in particular, are seen as the main contributing factor in Idaho’s alarming child death statistics. Their misguided theology begs the question of where our freedom-loving nation should draw the line when it comes to religious liberties.

The three groups—the Followers of Christ, the Church of the Firstborn and the Christian Science Church—all believe that healing for a disease or malady should be sought through prayer and seeking God alone, and not from medicine. An article on idahochildren.org breaks down the statistics on deaths in the state from 2002 to 2013. The broader population has an average of 3 percent of their deaths being children or still births. In contrast, in the Peaceful Valley Cemetry, which is under the control of the Followers of Christ, gravestones give witness to 35 percent of deaths being children or still births.

In 1972, Idaho put into practice religious exceptions to their laws on criminal injury to children. While these religious groups built communities in Oregon and Idaho, when Oregon revised its laws in 2011, removing religious belief as a defense for homicide, most of the groups’ members moved to Idaho to continue to practice their strange sect of Christianity.

These groups are no strangers to an incredulous public eye, with articles written by the Portland-based Oregonian and news channels covering the horrific details of the child abuse and neglect that occur behind the closed doors of these communities.

When KATU reporters investigated the deaths of several children in these communities, they unearthed some disheartening information. Take the case of 14-year-old Rocky Sevy, whose parents refused to seek medical treatment for his pneumonia. When asked why they refused, Dan Sevy said he didn’t want to talk about it. However, Sevy, who has become somewhat of a public face of faith-healing groups, offered this statement:

“What I will talk to you about is the law. I would like to remind you this country was founded on religious freedom, and on freedom in general. I would like to say, I picture freedom as a full object. It’s not like you take ‘a’ freedom away. It’s that you chip at the entire thing. Freedom is freedom. Whenever you try to restrict any one person, then you’re chipping away at freedom. Yours and mine… All I see is an aggressive campaign against Christianity in general, it’s amazing to me in this day and age where Muslims get soft pedaled and Christians are under attack. It just blows my mind.”

There is even quite a bit of information you can find on social media. One former member of the Followers of Christ has started a Facebook page called Silent Cries the Faces of Religious Abuse to remember the victims of medical neglect.

Yesterday, the Hollywood Reporter published an article announcing the making of a documentary on the group. According to the article, “the film will depict Idaho’s political and ideological struggle over religious shield laws.” The documentary will utilize interviews with active and former members of the Followers of Christ, members of law enforcement, and activists from Oregon and Idaho, who have tirelessly been working to provide some legal support for the children raised in groups such as these. Sevy and his appeal to Idaho’s state legislature to protect his right to refuse medical service will be one of the main focuses of the film.

A large part of what has been allowed to go on in Idaho is due to a state’s right to govern itself by its own laws. In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled against this practice of parents subjecting their children to extreme acts of “faith” such as these. The ruling on the Prince v. Massachusetts case states: “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. 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.”

In light of the executive order Trump just signed and his outspoken push for religious liberties, one must ask: Where do we draw the line? It’s true we believe everyone should be free to worship as they see fit, but what about when that worship puts other, more vulnerable people at risk? When does a freedom-loving nation draw a line and who determines where that line should be drawn?