Last week's Canyon County coroner election served as the latest political flashpoint surrounding faith healing.
Idaho is one of few states in the country with a law shielding faith-healing adherents from civil or criminal prosecution when their children die without medical care. While 34 states and Washington, D.C., have some faith-healing protections on the books, the Gem State is among at least six with religious exemptions to manslaughter, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center report.
Canyon County Coroner Vicki DeGeus-Morris, who lost a primary election last week to former deputy coroner Jennifer Crawford, is often the first to deal with deaths in Canyon County related to faith healing. Criticism of her role in reporting those deaths surfaced frequently during the campaign.
The Followers of Christ Church — which practices faith healing and rejects modern medicine — has a large following in rural Canyon County. Linda Martin, an ex-Followers member and opponent of the faith healing exemption, believes some of the several hundred members estimated to be in Canyon County moved from Oregon after the state rescinded its religious exemption for murder and manslaughter cases in 2011. Some members of the Followers of Christ have been charged with crimes in Oregon courts for failing to seek medical care for their children in recent years.
Instituted in the early 1970s, Idaho's religious exemption says if a child dies, parents can't be prosecuted if they believe in faith healing and used spiritual care alone, even if medical care could have prevented the death.
Many states added protections of varying degrees after a 1974 federal mandate required religious exemptions be added to state child protection laws, according to the 2016 Pew report. The mandate was later removed, added, then removed again and is no longer in place, Pew reports.
Activists say repealing faith-healing protections is a matter of helping children who can't help themselves, while the faith-healing community claims the heart of the debate lies in protecting religious freedom.
In August 2016, when a legislative working group on faith healing met to discuss the issue and receive public input, a Followers of Christ member shared his perspective.
"If we are injured, sometimes we just pick up and go on," faith-healing supporter Dan Sevy told the panel. "Sometimes when it's more serious, we refer to the Lord to take care of us. In that instance, we also recognize in his supreme judgment that sometimes it isn't the result we'd really prayed for.
"As far as adherence to any law, who do you better obey: God or man?" he said. "I'm not subject to anything except my Lord and savior."
Opponents of faith-healing exemptions, such as Bruce Wingate of Protect Idaho Kids, focused on GOP coroner candidate Jennifer Crawford's primary upset of DeGeus-Morris — who'll have served 28 years by the end of her term — as a chance for change. Crawford faces no declared challengers in the November general election as of publication. Barring a write-in candidate or another extenuating circumstance, Crawford would take office in January.
Wingate wasn't the only one to see opportunity in the coroner's race. At public forums and in letters to the editor printed in the Idaho Press-Tribune, a number of citizens hitched the faith-healing issue to the race.
Ron Harriman, a Nampa resident and a board member of the Concerned Citizens of Canyon County Committee, wrote an April 20 letter to the editor calling on Canyon County residents to vote out DeGeus-Morris for the "good of Canyon County and our reputation."
"It is LONG past time to elect a new Coroner," Harriman wrote. "Vicki DeGeus-Morris has been protective of the families who deny their children medical care and refuses to deliver any data covering the deaths of these children."
DeGeus-Morris has repeatedly emphasized that she works within the bounds of Idaho law — and would have changed her practice if the law ever changed.
"(The Followers of Christ) have been totally cooperative, and I have never had any problems with them," DeGeus-Morris said. "I don’t judge. It’s not my place to judge them. The Legislature has to change that law — (Crawford) can’t change that law. She has to work with them under the same circumstances, and I don’t know how she’s going to make it any better."
Wingate helped organize a February rally at the Idaho Statehouse as a public critique and call for action on faith healing. At that rally, former Meridian resident Willie Hughes told a crowd carrying 183 child-sized coffins the story of his brother's death, which was symbolized by the coffins, along with the deaths of other children believed to have died from lack of medical care since the 1970s.
Hughes said his younger brother died of bronchial pneumonia after his parents and the elders of his Followers of Christ church refused to allow him medical care. Hughes was similarly denied medical care during childhood accidents and left the church when he was 16, he said.
Although Hughes' parents refused to allow their children medical care — and shunned Hughes after his surgery and subsequent hospitalization — both sought life-saving medical care for themselves years later, he said.
“This is how I will always remember the people of this cult,” Hughes said at the time. “Both my parents received the medical care they denied their children.”
WORKING WITHIN THE LAW
Child advocates, opponents of the religious exemption and even Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue have accused DeGeus-Morris of failing to immediately report medically unattended child deaths to law enforcement.
Donahue said communication between the sheriff and the coroner's offices has improved over the last two years, but there were times since he took office in 2012 when the coroner's office contacted law enforcement too late or not at all.
"In the past, and it’s gotten better the last year, I admit, we may get contacted by the coroner 10 to 14 hours later. Let’s say an average 8 to 10 hours," Donahue said. By that time, Donahue said, the scene of the death has been altered and the victim moved in such a way that impedes the investigation.
A new coroner in Canyon County can't guarantee much change when Republicans who won legislative primary contests in Canyon County have shown reluctance to roll back faith-healing prosecution exemptions, on top of a historically hesitant state Legislature. And Donahue said better collaboration between his office and the county coroner won't change the fact that Canyon County can't prosecute faith-healing parents whom law enforcement determine are medically negligent.
"Do they have the right to deprive a vulnerable person medical attention to the point where that child dies?" said Donahue, who has testified before the Idaho Legislature on the topic multiple times. "I consider that neglect. I do. I took an oath to protect all citizens, and yet I do not feel like I can protect the most vulnerable in our society."
A 2015-2016 governor's task force estimated five infant deaths in Idaho in 2013 were caused by parents who didn't seek medical treatment for religious reasons. Protect Idaho Kids claims 183 children have died since Idaho instituted the religious exemption — but the organization's leaders also think that number is too low. Members of the Followers of Christ don't always report deaths to their local coroner's office and critics of the exemption believe children recorded as dying of 'natural causes' were actually neglected.
That leads advocates like Martin do their own research, requesting death reports from the Canyon County Coroner's Office and counting child graves in the Peaceful Valley Cemetery outside Caldwell, where many Followers are buried.
"These children suffer horribly, they are in extreme pain," Martin told the Idaho Press-Tribune. "I just find it really troubling that legislators would rather protect a friend than save a child’s life."
IN THE STATEHOUSE
State Sen. Dan Johnson, a Republican from Lewiston who co-chaired a 2016 legislative interim committee looking into faith healing, introduced legislation in 2017 to open those who practice faith healing to civil neglect liability, but it was defeated on an 11-24 vote.
The state Legislature did not address faith healing protections in the 2018 session. Republicans who secured legislative primary nominations in Canyon County districts seldom express support for rolling back the exemptions. And since at least 1994, a Democrat hasn’t won a general election for a legislative seat in districts 9-13, all at least part in Canyon County.
Leading up to the primary elections, Canyon County candidates voiced concerns that repealing the exemptions for people practicing faith healing would conflict with protections for freedom of religion.
Nine-term state Rep. Gary Collins, a Nampa Republican who won his primary election this month, refrained from weighing in on the issue in a candidate survey response, but he did suggest there would be action next legislative session.
“There have been some good hearings and discussions in the House of Representatives on this problem, there has not been any legislation proposed yet, but I feel there may be some movement next year,” he wrote. “This is a hard issue, because of what our Constitution guarantees.”
Two-term state Rep. Ryan Kerby, a Republican from New Plymouth who won his primary, said he’d have to see a bill before saying how he felt on the issue.
“You have to see the legislation. What’s going to be important here is the legislation itself,” he told the Press-Tribune. “I just can’t imagine someone sitting there and watching their kid suffer, but at the same time I believe in religious freedom.”
Remarks from nine-term state Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, a Caldwell Republican who has chaired the Senate Judiciary and Rules committee for six years, focused on protecting religious freedom.
“I personally believe in prayer and medical intervention but I cannot interfere with a parent's right to worship as their faith and morals direct them. They have the Constitutional Right to Freedom of Religion,” she wrote in her candidate survey. “To prosecute faithful, caring, loving parents, who truly believe that the Lord heals his children is not for me to decide.”
Lodge narrowly won her May 15 primary election, securing just 215 more votes, or three percentage points, over challenger Zach Brooks.
One-term state Rep. Scott Syme, a Caldwell Republican who secured his primary nomination, said he’d need to work with the faith healing community to come to a solution.
“I know all of these people and they don’t love their kids any less than we do,” Syme said. “Honestly, it’s a super difficult issue, and I think they’ll (the faith healing community) probably figure this out better than we can.”
Tammy Nichols was the only non-incumbent to win a Republican legislative primary in Canyon County. She picked up the Republican nomination for the District 11 House seat left vacant by state Rep. Christy Perry, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress. Nichols was reluctant to take a stance on the faith healing exemption.
“If we start down that road (of repealing the exemptions), then we might start overstepping our boundaries when it comes to parental rights,” Nichols told the Press-Tribune. “But if someone’s feeling they (the laws) are not strong enough, then by all means assess them. I stand that we keep what we currently have in place, but if there is a feeling that those need to be assessed and evaluated already, then let’s have that conversation.”
On the other side of the issue are state Rep. John Gannon, a Boise Democrat, and former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones. To Jones — who was chief justice for nearly two of the 12 years he sat on the bench and state attorney general for eight years before that — it comes down to a separation of church and state.
“It seems odd that the stricter division between church and state applies to education but, when it comes to life and death matters, the church wins over the state,” he told the Press-Tribune.
At the end of the day, though, it boils down to two rights, which sometimes conflict: religious freedom and the right to life. That presents an obvious solution for Jones.
“The state has a responsibility to step in because these kids have no other voice,” he said. “The state’s main responsibility is to protect the life and safety of all our citizens, including those who are of tender years. And a person can continue to have their religious beliefs, but they can't use it to the detriment of someone else.”
He and Gannon worked together to author a bill repealing the prosecution exemption for parents who don’t seek medical attention for their children due to religious or spiritual practices.
The bill was drafted in late January, but it was never assigned to a committee for a hearing. Gannon has proposed similar legislation every year for the past four years.
“In an election year, the more difficult issues are often set aside and tackled after the election,” he told the Press-Tribune. “So next year, I think it is more likely that something will happen on the issue. The issue is not going away.”
ADVOCATES PUSH FOR CHANGE IN CANYON COUNTY
Things in Canyon County are already better than they used to be, Donahue said. For the last two years, Donahue said the coroner's office had been more collaborative with law enforcement in investigations of unattended child deaths among the Followers.
Donahue also credited DeGeus-Morris's outreach for the slowly increasing calls and reports from families associated with the Followers of Christ when someone has died.
“She’s helped them understand that you’ve got to report this stuff, because you’re violating the law when you don’t,” Donahue said.
Now, Donahue said, it will fall on primary-winner Crawford to develop a similar relationship with faith healing families while keeping law enforcement in the loop.
"The new coroner, when she does take office, I think this is an opportunity to advance those conversations," Donahue said. "There is law, that you have to report a death. Really, we take that a step forward — they should always contact law enforcement immediately."
While Crawford also cautioned she couldn't do much under current Idaho law, she said her office would have a more collaborative relationship with the sheriff's office than when she was deputy.
"When I was there, law enforcement wasn’t always called," Crawford said. "It needs to be. I will ensure that we do indeed contact the proper agencies."
Wingate, with Protect Idaho Kids, said Crawford could ensure a more comprehensive accounting of child deaths in Canyon County. But he said rescinding the statewide religious exemption in the 2019 legislative session remains their group's focus.
Protect Idaho Kids advocates and other participants carried 183 coffins in a February march at the Capitol to represent the number of children they say died from lack of medical care since Idaho's law went into effect in the early '70s. In the next march — planned for November, before the session begins — the coffins that marchers carry will mean something a little different.
“This one will be to represent the children that will die in the next decade if the laws are not repealed," Wingate said.