CALDWELL — “It kind of seems like a humble little place — for as much chaos as it seems to cause.”
The A&E documentary “No Greater Law,” opens with Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue’s comment, as he observes the small Followers of Christ church in rural Canyon County from his police car. The Followers of Christ — a small and secretive Christian sect with members scattered across Idaho and Oregon — practice faith-healing, meaning church members won’t seek medical attention when they’re injured or sick. Local law enforcement believe Idaho’s community — including several hundred mostly in Canyon County — left Oregon after the state rescinded its religious exemption for murder and manslaughter cases in 2011.
Idaho is one of few states in the country with a law shielding faith-healing parents from civil or criminal prosecution when their children die without medical care. Controversy over children that were allegedly endangered or neglected because their families practice faith healing continues to surface in Canyon County in particular. The film features several other elected officials from Canyon County, as the documentary also follows Idaho’s doomed Senate Bill 1182, which failed 11-24 in the 2017 legislative session. The bill would have removed Idaho’s faith healing exemption from civil liability for child neglect.
A similar bill drafted by Rep. John Gannon of Boise and former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones in the 2018 legislative session failed to even make it out of committee.
Filmmakers were granted extraordinary access to the Followers of Christ church and homes, conducting extensive interviews with church elders and leaders, including Dan Sevy, who testified several times before the Idaho legislature in support of the faith healing exemption.
The film remains neutral on the morality of parents choosing prayer and faith healing rather than medical care for their children, instead casting Sevy and Donahue, in particular, as ideological opponents. Donahue, along with former Followers of Christ members Linda Martin, Willie Hughes and Brian Hoyt, argue the religious exemption allows the ongoing criminal negligence of children and a community above the law.
“We’re not asking them not to worship God,” Donahue says in the film. “We’re just saying you don’t get to kill your kids along the way. It’s pretty simple.”
Sevy frames the issue as simple faith and infringement of “American” freedoms — and that changing the law won’t change church members’ traditions.
“There’s always been those who persecute Christians,” Sevy says in the film.
Other elected officials like State Senator Patti Anne Lodge and Canyon County Coroner Vicki DeGeus-Morris feature prominently in the film’s narrative. Lodge appears sympathetic for the Sevy family and the faith healing community in her district, assuring legislators the Followers of Christ are “honest, faithful” neighbors. DeGeus-Morris defends her office’s decision to treat the Followers of Christ differently, allowing parents to clean and move a child’s body over the objection of investigating law enforcement.
“Listen, dude, I’m on your side,” DeGues-Morris said she told a church member after his child died. “I’m here to help you guys. I want to help you keep your way of life. I’m not your enemy.”
DeGeus-Morris lost Canyon County’s May primary election to her former deputy coroner Jennifer Crawford, after criticism of her role in reporting faith healing deaths surfaced frequently during the campaign.
The film also adds insight into the death of Sevy’s 24-year-old son Clay, who was physically and mentally disabled because of an undiagnosed genetic disorder. Clay died during the 2017 legislative hearings on the faith healing exemption. Shaky bodycam or handheld footage possibly provided by the Canyon County Sheriff’s Department shows deputies interviewing an upset Sevy family after Clay’s death.
Donahue told the Idaho Press he hopes the film will encourage Idaho lawmakers to make new faith healing legislation a priority in the 2019 legislative session — especially as pending cases continue to keep the issue at the forefront in the “epicenter” of Canyon County.
A Caldwell mother arrested earlier this summer told deputies her religious beliefs prompted her to pray for her husband rather than tell police about his alleged sexual abuse of their daughters, the Idaho Press previously reported. Sarah Kester and her husband, Lester Kester Jr., are affiliated with the Followers of Christ Church and await trial in the Canyon County Jail.
“I would hope that every legislator in the state of Idaho watches this film before they get to the legislature,” Donahue told the Idaho Press. “They have a responsibility to watch it. They’re in it.”
“No Greater Law” was directed by Tim Dumican and will premiere on A&E at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Monday, Sept. 24. You can watch the trailer at www.aetv.com/movies/no-greater-law.