Mariah is 20 but she’s frail and permanently disabled. She has pulmonary hypertension and when she’s not bedridden, she has to carry an oxygen tank that allows her to breathe. At times, she has had screws in her bones to anchor her breathing device. She may soon have no option for a cure except a heart and lung transplant – an extremely risky procedure.
All this could have been prevented in her infancy by closing a small congenital hole in her heart. It could even have been successfully treated in later years, before irreversible damage was done. But Mariah’s parents were fundamentalist Mormons who went off the grid in northern Idaho in the 1990s and refused to take their children to doctors, believing that illnesses could be healed through faith and the power of prayer.
As she grew sicker and sicker, Mariah’s parents would pray over her and use alternative medicine. Until she finally left home two years ago, she did not have a social security number or a birth certificate.
Had they been in neighboring Oregon, her parents could have been booked for medical neglect. In Mariah’s case, as in scores of others of instances of preventible death among children in Idaho since the 1970s, laws exempt dogmatic faith healers from prosecution, and she and her sister recently took part in a panel discussion with lawmakers at the state capitol about the issue. Idaho is one of only six states that offer a faith-based shield for felony crimes such as manslaughter.
Some of those enjoying legal protection are fringe Mormon families like Mariah’s, many of whom live in the state’s north. But a large number of children have died in southern Idaho, near Boise, in families belonging to a reclusive, Pentecostal faith-healing sect called the Followers of Christ.
In Canyon County, just west of the capital, the sect’s Peaceful Valley cemetery is full of graves marking the deaths of children who lived a day, a week, a month. Last year, a taskforce set up by Idaho governor Butch Otter estimated that the child mortality rate for the Followers of Christ between 2002 and 2011 was 10 times that of Idaho as a whole.
The shield laws that prevent prosecutions in Idaho are an artifact of the Nixon administration. High-profile child abuse cases in the 1960s led pediatricians and activists to push for laws that combatted it. In order to help states fund such programs, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (Capta), which Richard Nixon signed in 1974.
But there was a fateful catch due to the influence of Nixon advisers John Ehrlichman and J R Haldeman, both lifelong Christian Scientists.
Boston College history professor Alan Rogers explains how the men – later jailed for their role in the Watergate scandal – were themselves members of a faith-healing sect, and acted to prevent their co-religionists being charged with crimes of neglect.
“Because Ehrlichman and Haldeman were Christian Scientists, they had inserted into the law a provision that said those who believe that prayer is the only way to cure illness are exempted from this law,” he said.
They also ensure that states had to pass similar exemptions in order to access Capta funds. The federal requirement was later relaxed, but the resultant state laws have had to be painstakingly repealed one by one.
Some states, such as Oregon, held on longer until high-profile deaths in the Followers of Christ church in Oregon City attracted the attention of local media; over time the state reversed course.
As a result, several Followers of Christ members in Oregon have been successfully prosecuted. In 2010, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley were convicted of criminally negligent homicide after the death of their toddler, Neal, who died from a congenital bladder blockage. In 2011, Timothy and Rebecca Wyland were convicted of criminal mistreatment and the court ordered that their daughter Aylana be medically treated for the growth that had been threatening to blind her. Later that year, Dale and Shannon Hickman were convicted of second-degree manslaughter two years after their newborn son died of a simple infection.
Next door, Idaho presents a polar opposition to Oregon. Republicans, who enjoy an effective permanent majority in the state house, are surprisingly reluctant to even consider reform. Last year, the governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk recommended change: “Religious freedoms must be protected; but vulnerable children must also be appropriately protected from unnecessary harm and death.” Democratic legislator John Gannon proposed a repeal bill which he “never thought would really be that controversial”.
The chairman of the senate health and welfare committee, Lee Heider, refused to even grant it a hearing, effectively killing it.