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CALDWELL, Idaho — In the heart of the Northwest, there is Idaho. And in the heart of Idaho, there is God. And God, residents believe, blesses some and takes others away early.
Like Neil Jacob Randolph, a 3-year-old buried in Peaceful Valley Cemetery in Caldwell in 1982. “Sleep on sweet Neil — and take thy rest,” his headstone reads. “God called thee home. He thought it best.”
In another row are the graves of four infants marked with identical headstones on which “Infant Bailey” is hand-scrawled in capital letters — pressed into wet cement decades ago.
Many of the nearly 600 people buried here were Followers of Christ — a Christian sect that believes in faith healing and does not allow members — including sick children — to see doctors or use modern medicine. The Pentecostal religion, founded in the 1930s, has long had a presence in Western states. Former members say the church has become increasingly secretive about its beliefs and population after years of negative attention for deaths related to spiritual healing.
Several of the children buried here at Peaceful Valley Cemetery died from preventable ailments like pneumonia and food poisoning. And 70 percent of these children died after 1972, when religious exemptions protecting faith healers from charges of neglect, abuse and murder were enacted in Idaho and around the country. If a child dies or is abused in Idaho, law states that a parent can’t be found guilty if they believe in spiritual healing.
“The practice of a parent or guardian who chooses for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to have violated the duty of care to such child,” the law reads.
But today, some people wonder how many of the dead children here could have been saved. Idaho is one of only six U.S. states that allow religious exemption for negligent homicide, manslaughter or capital murder. While some have called for the Gem State’s law to be revised, efforts have gained little traction. A bill introduced last year was swiftly nixed by Idaho’s House speaker, and lawmakers say they haven’t heard of any bills coming forward in this year’s session. And this week, the House State Affairs Committee passed a bill — despite emotional testimony — that recognizes that Idaho parents and guardians “have a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, education and control of their children.” Many expressed concern that this was just another covert protection for faith healers
Efforts to discuss Idaho’s laws by Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD), a national organization working to protect children, have been met coolly by the Idaho Governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk. “The governor has indicated that he will not take a position on this legislation, and therefore the task force will not be taking a position,” its chairman wrote in an email last fall to CHILD. “Individuals may act independently as they desire.”
Idaho is bucking the legal trend around the country, particularly in Northwestern states, where religious shield laws are quickly falling away. Oregon removed its laws in 2011 and has seen convictions of faith healers in recent months. Earlier this month, Washington took steps to revamp its law by passing a bill unanimously through committee that would remove references to faith-based exemptions regarding criminal mistreatment of children and vulnerable adults. Supporters of reform testified that Washington’s current law creates “confusion that results in harm to children.”
But in deeply religious Idaho, debate over faith-based protections raises questions about how far religious freedom extends, what rights children are born with and whether government can tell people how to parent.
Many believe religious exemption laws legalize child abuse.
“You can’t beat a child,” said Linda Martin, a former Follower of Christ working to see Idaho’s laws repealed. She said she could no longer sit back and watch Idaho children die in the name of God. “To sit there and do absolutely nothing for a child except pray for them and watch them suffer? That’s just inhumane.”
“You’re dealing with an 1800s mentality in the 2000s. And there’s just no reasoning with it,” she added.
But Rep. Christy Perry (R-Nampa) said the law, as it stands, represents the constituents of her district, Canyon County, where Peaceful Valley Cemetery sits. “They have a clear understanding of what the role of government should be,” she said. “[It] isn’t how to tell me how to live my life.”
And perhaps, she said, Followers of Christ are more comfortable confronting death. “Children do die,” Perry said. “And I’m not trying to sound callous, but [people calling for reform] want to act as if death is an anomaly. But it’s not. It’s a way of life.”
With Perry’s help, Al Jazeera America reached out to two groups associated with faith healing as well as one family, but all declined to speak publicly.
‘We’ve made a commitment as a country to protect the rights of people to follow their God as far as possible. The question has always been in the United States, How far is the line?’
director, Religious Freedom Center
For the past two years, Martin, 60, who left the Boise Followers of Christ when she was 16, has chased down Idaho legislators in the Capitol hallways. She has told them stories of the stillborn babies she saw as a child, the funerals she attended, the birth defects that caused her to recently go on disability.
She tells them about her nephew Steven, born with spina bifida and paralyzed from the waist down. He was never allowed a wheelchair. “He had to drag himself on the floor with his fingers,” she said. “He was given nothing for pain. This child suffered every day of his life until he died when he was almost 3.”
Debate over faith-healing believers like the Followers of Christ is part of one of the longest-running conversations in America, said Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.
“We’ve made a commitment as a country to protect the rights of people to follow their God as far as possible,” he said. “The question has always been in the United States, How far is that? How far is the line? The struggle is to determine [where] the government has the right to draw the line.”
Haynes points to the 1878 Supreme Court case Reynolds v. United States, in which the court struck down polygamy. “That was sort of one of the great moments of line drawing. Yes, everyone has the right to believe what they want to believe, and that right is absolute. But the right to act on one’s religious beliefs is not absolute.”
“I don’t think that there’s any room under the law for endangering the life of a child. Or under the First Amendment,” he added. “These laws are not supposed to extend that far.”
Martin said she’s not attacking religious freedom, but lawmakers can’t seem to get past that. One senator, she said, told her, “‘You’ve said parental rights and religious freedom — none of us are going to jump in front that bus.’”
University of Idaho law professor Shaakirrah Sanders raises an eyebrow at Idaho’s faith-healer protections.
“A lot of the language is a little broad and a little vague,” Sanders said. “That’s exacerbated by the fact that Idaho has declined to really prosecute anyone.”
Perry said her inbox has been flooded with emails from people who want to see Idaho’s faith-healing laws repealed. But most of them are from out of state, she said.
“As you move out West, we tend to be much more independent people, and Idaho is a lot like that,” she said, adding that the independent streak is probably stronger in certain parts of the state, like Canyon County.
“They do not look to the government to help them at all,” said Perry, speaking about Followers of Christ. “They’re very self-sufficient and know how to take care of themselves. In Canyon County, people hunt to feed their families. They fish. They grow their own food.”
Faith healers, she said, are not uncaring parents. They simply trust God above doctors and have faith that God will do what’s right.
“They are comforted by the fact that they know their child is in heaven,” Perry said. “If I want to let my child be with God, why is that wrong?”
Furthermore, she said, she’s unsure of the motives of those who want to see faith-healing protections removed.
“Is it really because these children are dying more so than other children? Or is this really about an attack on a religion you don’t agree with?”
For Martin, it is simply an issue of child welfare.
“What Idaho is doing is they’re opening their doors and they’re welcoming these people in as the other states strengthen their laws,” she said.