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Faith-Healer Parents Who Let Their Child Die Should Go to Jail

Stephane Bidouze /

In America, 43 of the 50 U.S. states confer some type of civil or criminal immunity on parents who injure their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds. If your child has diabetes or a severe infection, and you pray for her instead of giving her insulin or antibiotics, she’ll probably die, but you’re largely off the legal hook. But that immunity doesn’t apply if you injure your child by withholding medical care for nonreligious reasons; for that, you can be prosecuted for neglect, abuse, or even manslaughter. This privileging of religion is dangerous to children—and has killed many of them. In Idaho, for instance, parents are immunized against prosecution for involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide when they let their kids die in the name of faith. In fact, parents there can’t be prosecuted for anything if they rely solely on faith healing.

The Followers of Christ, a Pentacostal and literalistic sect of Christianity that rejects all medical care (including the use of midwives) in favor of prayer, flourishes in both Oregon and Idaho. But those neighboring states differ strongly in how they deal with faith-based treatment. In 2011, Oregon eliminated all religious exemptions from required medical care. In that state, members of faith-healing sects, like the parents of 13-year-old Syble Rossiter, have been convicted of manslaughter for relying on prayer instead of doctors. Rossiter, who had juvenile-onset diabetes, met a particularly horrible death, one completely avoidable had she been given insulin.  

But just over the border, in Idaho, parents can expect no prosecution when their children die after an ineffective dose of prayer. That state’s lax “Child Protective Act” explicitly says that “no child whose parent or guardian chooses for such child treatment by prayers through spiritual means alone in lieu of medical treatment shall be deemed for that reason alone to be neglected or lack parental care necessary for his health and well-being.” And because of that provision, children of religious parents die in droves. At least a dozen Idaho children have succumbed in the last four years after being given faith healing rather than medial treatment, but not one parent has been prosecuted. In one Followers of Christ cemetery, 35 percent of the graves are of newborns or minor children, implying a child mortality rate among Followers more than tenfold higher than among Idaho residents as a whole.

Idaho is doing nothing to stop the carnage because, after all, its legislators were the ones who passed that religious-exemption law in 1972. An attempt to rescind the law last year failed: The speaker of the Idaho House wouldn’t even let that bill have a hearing. New legislation is in the works, but it has a slim chance of passing, so children will continue to die with Idaho’s knowledge and complicity.

Republican Christy Perry, a gun-toting state representative, is one of many Idaho legislators who oppose reforming the law. She told Al-Jazeera America that members of the Followers of Christ "have a clear understanding of what the role of government should be" and that "it isn’t how to tell me how to live my life." According to the report, "Perry insists Followers of Christ have a First Amendment right to deny medical care to their children on religious grounds, arguing that they are perhaps more comfortable confronting death."

“Children do die,” Perry told Al-Jazeera. “I’m not trying to sound callous, but [reformers] want to act as if death is an anomaly. But it’s not—it’s a way of life.”

That is indeed callous. Death is not a “way of life,” but the end of life. And death can often be prevented—easily, in many cases—with appropriate medical attention. In contrast, there’s simply no evidence that you can cure diabetes or leukemia through prayer, even though Idaho allows the religious to keep trying. Is the death of someone like Syble Rossiter simply a “way of life” to be shrugged off?  

Premature, medically preventable death certainly is an anomaly. Even if you think, as Perry probably does, that those dead children will find their respite in Heaven, that’s no answer, for they’ve still suffered and died here on Earth—suffering and death that diminishes any postmortem good. Does God want them to suffer and die young? Why can’t they enter Heaven at a ripe old age?

Perry went on to call Followers of Christ members "very self-sufficient" who "know how to take care of themselves." That's obviously not true, at least not in the twenty-first century. They don’t know how to treat an infection, they don’t know how to treat diabetes, they don’t know how to treat asthma, and they don’t know how to deal with the complications of childbirth. And how has “trusting God’s will” worked out for them, given a juvenile death tenfold higher than the state average?

Finally, Perry had the temerity to accuse those who oppose religious exemptions of being biased against the Followers of Christ:

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?”

Yes, it really is because these children are dying more so than other children. After all, this kind of religious exemption, and its sequelae, revolt many religious people, too. The calls for reform don’t constitute an attack on religion per se, but an attack on the actions of a particular religion—delusional actions that take the lives of children too young to make their own decisions. How can we not attack them?

In addition to Idaho, five other states (Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, and West Virginia) immunize parents against prosecution in cases such as Rossiter's. But even if you don't live in one of those states, odds are that your own state has similar legislation—much of it enacted after heavy lobbying by Christian Scientists, who continue to deny their children medical care throughout the country. It’s time to follow Oregon's lead.

A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.