Linda Martin grew up with death. As a child, she would see friends at church one week and then never again, she said. When the community’s elders gathered at someone’s home, she assumed the worst: another loss.
Martin, who now lives in Oregon, was raised in Boise as a member of the Followers of Christ Church, a small religious group with congregations in parts of rural Idaho. For years, the church has been in the public spotlight over its controversial faith healing beliefs of using prayer or spiritual healing in place of medical care.
Martin said the practice was at the root of deaths she witnessed as a child: cousins who died days after being born, a nephew who “drowned in his own fluids” with pneumonia at 2 years old. Though she left the church when she was 16, at 68 years old she still tracks each child death connected to the church.
Coroner’s reports, death certificates and headstones at a small cemetery near Marsing show dozens of child deaths and stillbirths — some of them deemed preventable by medical experts — linked to the church and faith healing.
For decades, Idaho has allowed an exemption in its Child Protective Act and child injury and abandonment laws for faith healing, letting parents choose to withhold potentially lifesaving treatment without fear of legal repercussions. Since 2014, opponents of faith healing have lobbied the Idaho Legislature to change the law, but efforts have stalled amid concerns over parental rights and religious and medical freedom. Legislators last debated a change to faith healing exemptions in 2017 with a much-criticized bill that was voted down on the Senate floor.
Since then, more children have died. Coroner’s reports obtained through records requests by the Idaho Statesman showed eight child deaths, including stillbirths, associated with faith healing since the start of 2020 in Canyon County, where the Followers of Christ’s largest church group is located. A Statesman investigation published in February 2020 found 11 faith healing deaths in the same county during the previous five years.
In the last year, the Idaho Legislature has seen significant turnover and lost a longtime ally of faith healing, but it’s still not clear if that will pave a path for change. Martin said she’s grown discouraged watching lawmakers debate as more children die potentially preventable deaths.
“How many people are willing to sit back and say, ‘This doesn’t affect me’?” she told the Statesman in an interview. “When you see that kids are hurting, how do you step away when you can help?”
HOW SHIFT IN LEGISLATURE COULD AFFECT FAITH HEALING BILLS
Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, has attempted to introduce changes to state faith healing laws in the Legislature for nearly a decade after learning about the practice in 2014.
“A constituent told me about the experience of being raised in a community that didn’t believe in medical attention,” Gannon told the Statesman in a phone interview. “When it first came up (in the Legislature), there were a lot of legislators who were surprised. They didn’t believe it was happening.”
By the time Gannon became aware of faith healing, the practice had been allowed in many U.S. states for 40 years.
Roger Sherman, director of Idaho Children’s Trust Fund, told the Statesman that faith healing has roots in the 1974 Federal Child Abuse and Prevention and Treatment Act. He said the Department of Health and Human Services interpreted the new law to allow for religious exemptions, prompting states to pass their own laws to receive federal funding. Most states repealed their laws in the 1980s, Sherman said.
Today, Idaho is one of a few states whose faith healing exemptions persist.
Gannon said he’s confident lawmakers will “percolate” another attempt at changing one or more of the state’s faith healing exemptions. He pointed to a law on abandonment of children and spouses that includes a faith healing exemption for willfully omitting “food, clothing, shelter or medical attendance” to one’s child, but no such exemption for denying a spouse the same care.
“There’s a very serious difference between the two obligations,” Gannon said. “I think most reasonable people would say the kids are as important as the parents.”
Martin said shifts in the Legislature could bode well for renewed efforts. Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, did not seek reelection this year after 11 terms in the Legislature. Lodge, who represented many members of the Followers of Christ Church, has been a staunch opponent of removing Idaho’s faith healing exemptions.
“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,” Lodge told the Idaho Press in a candidate questionnaire in 2018.
Martin, who has lobbied Idaho legislators to change faith healing exemptions, told the Statesman she believes Lodge was key in blocking previous legislation.
“If it hadn’t been for Patti Anne Lodge, we would’ve had this changed years ago,” Martin said in a phone interview.
Efforts to reach Lodge for comment were unsuccessful.
Lodge chaired the Senate State Affairs Committee from 2018 to 2022. That position now belongs to Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon. In an email, Guthrie told the Statesman it’s too soon to say how the committee would react to a bill to amend faith healing exemptions.
“I have not been involved in this issue to the extent former Chair Lodge was (not even close) so I would reserve my comments until I see what the changes would look like,” Guthrie wrote. “This is a very complicated, touchy issue and it would be neglect of me to comment in general terms.”
Rep. Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, told the Statesman she think there may be some opportunities to advance the issue this year. Legislative redistricting and turnover means more than one-third of the Legislature will be new to their positions and potentially have different stances on faith healing.
Senate President Chuck Winder, R-Boise, told the Statesman he thinks any bills on faith healing in the 2023 session will meet with the same issues that have killed bills in the past: parental and religious rights. Democrats lost one seat in the House after the November general election. In the Senate, a group of new legislators who lean further to the right ousted incumbents.
“That’s been the dividing line over the years,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s not that we don’t care about the kids. (Faith healing practitioners) have a right to their religion, and a lot of people believe in the power of prayer. That’s kind of where (the tension) has been.”
PAST ATTEMPTS TO CHANGE FAITH HEALING EXEMPTION FAILED In 2014
Gannon introduced a bill that would have voided the religious exemption “whenever a child’s medical condition has caused death or permanent disability.”
The bill died in the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee. The committee chairman, Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, said then-House Speaker Scott Bedke told him there was “no room in this Legislature for debate” on faith healing, according to The Associated Press.
Martin said she tried to arrange meetings with Bedke in 2015 and 2016 and was told by his staff that “Mr. Bedke had said there would be no faith healing bill that year either.” Bedke, who served as speaker for a decade and was elected lieutenant governor in November, told the Statesman he always had an open-door policy and did not remember turning Martin away.
Martin said few legislators seemed interested in tackling the issue, even after she shared her firsthand experiences.
“There was no empathy, no compassion for these children whatsoever,” Martin said. “It seemed like any time we came up with a bill, there were more parental rights bills passed that would give parents more control.”
A renewed attempt at revising the state’s faith healing exemptions surfaced in the Legislature in 2017. Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, introduced a bill to amend Idaho’s Child Protective Act to allow courts to take into account “the wishes of the child” in determining whether neglect occurred.
Bruce Wingate, founder of Protect Idaho Kids and a vocal opponent of faith healing, told the Statesman in an interview earlier this year that Johnson’s bill was unpopular even with faith healing critics. They worried it would broaden the exemption rather than rein it in.
Even more bills have been crafted and failed to be introduced in committee, Wingate said, in large part because of influential legislators like Lodge.
“We put forth legislation every year, but it never gets heard with the Republican Legislature we’ve got,” he said. “Legislators say if you can get the leadership to go along with it, they’ll support it.”
Bedke said several attempts at faith healing exemptions rewrites “never did get off the ground” in the Legislature.
“When that happens there’s a very short list of reasons — mostly because there aren’t the votes to move the legislation,” said Bedke, who’s now lieutenant governor. “Every legislator has his own compass on these kinds of things. They’re all entitled to their opinions.“
Necochea said, like Gannon, other Idaho Democrats will support efforts to revise the faith healing exemptions on Idaho’s books. She urged Republican lawmakers to face the topic head on, too.
“This is one of those issues that makes some legislators uncomfortable so the easiest path forward is to sweep it under the rug and not have the debate, not have the vote where they might take some heat from fringe groups,” she said.
Past attempts to end faith healing exemptions have indeed been met with pushback. Followers of Christ church members have testified in the Legislature against changing the law, with church member Dan Sevy telling legislators in 2016 that his religion believes Western medicine is a product of Satan.
And it’s not just Followers of Christ members who’ve been critical of potential changes.
Each January, Protect Idaho Kids hosts a panel discussion on faith healing, often including Gannon, Martin and prominent faith healing critics like former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones and Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue. In recent years, the panels have touched off hot debate with “vaccine freedom” advocates who say repealing faith healing exemptions will lead to the unraveling of religious exemptions for vaccines.
Gannon said his bills have never impacted vaccine exemptions.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, vaccinations have become an even more contentious topic in Idaho, a state that already offered a haven to those hoping to avoid vaccine requirements in states like California. In 2021, Idaho lawmakers attempted to pass several laws against vaccine mandates, including one that would have created a religious exemption to mandated vaccines. Most of those attempts failed, though legislators approved a joint memorial stating their opposition to President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements for federal employees.
Winder and Necochea said they don’t think that sentiment or inflamed concerns over parental and medical rights will impact new faith healing discussions. Wingate isn’t so sure. He said if measures continue to fail in the Legislature, he has considered launching a statewide ballot initiative to drum up public support and votes to remove the faith healing exemptions.
“It’s three or four kids (who die) each year, but one kid’s too many,” Wingate said. “Over a decade, 30 or 40 more kids— a classroom of kids —are going to die from this if it’s not altered.”
‘IT’S NOT AN EASY DEATH’
Proponents of Idaho faith healing exemptions say they preserve parental rights and religious freedom. But opponents say it’s an excuse that allows children to suffer horrible deaths.
“The way these kids die, it’s not an easy death,” Martin told the Statesman. “It’s torture.”
Child deaths in faith healing communities came under a spotlight in 2015 when the state’s Task Force on Children at Risk wrote a letter to then-Gov. Butch Otter expressing “serious concerns” about the exemptions.
Since then, children in the Followers of Christ Church have died due to sepsis, pneumonia, diabetes and other treatable or manageable illnesses, according to previous Statesman reporting.
That trend has continued in recent years. Since 2020, the Canyon County Coroner’s Office has responded to eight unattended juvenile deaths or stillbirths affiliated with Followers of Christ, according to public records obtained by the Statesman.
Coroner’s reports showed one child died after he was sick for six weeks with strep throat that developed into pneumonia. Another child died after becoming bloated with their own waste, which was attributed to short-segment Hirschsprung disease, a genetic condition in which nerve cells are absent in parts of the digestive system. Hirschsprung disease can often be managed with surgery, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
In two instances, the coroner’s office reported stillbirths due to a compressed umbilical cord. VeryWell Health, a physician-run health information website, says umbilical cord compression is a relatively common occurrence that can cause a baby’s heart rate to drop and cut off oxygen. It can be treated with intravenous fluids in minor cases or with a Cesarean section if the compression occurs during birth or when the baby is full-term.
In one umbilical cord compression stillbirth case, the coroner’s report noted that the umbilical cord was partially wrapped around the baby’s neck. The other report said the baby’s cause of death was due to the length of time it spent in the breech position, being born feet-first. The coroner noted that it “did not look like (the baby) would have failed to thrive outside the womb.”
One report of “intrauterine fetal demise” — another term for stillbirth — occurred around eight months of pregnancy due to the mother’s untreated preeclampsia, a high blood pressure condition that can be fatal for a mother and baby.
In the last two years, two other deaths were reported by the coroner’s office only as stillbirths or intrauterine fetal demise, with no details on additional factors. Another baby reportedly lived for several hours after birth but died after going into respiratory arrest. The coroner’s office listed premature birth as the cause of death.
CRITICS SAY SOME CHURCH MEMBERS SEEK HEALTH CARE
Martin said her frustrations with faith healing grew as she got older. She said her brother underwent heart surgery after suffering a heart attack years after his son died of untreated pneumonia.
“I started looking around at the people that were still members of the church, and a lot of the people I knew had lost children yet they were seeking medical care for themselves,” she said.
Donahue, the Canyon County sheriff who has advocated to remove the faith healing exemption, said he has noticed the same.
“People within that religion wear eyeglasses, take their animals to the veterinarian,” he said. “Some are treated for high blood pressure, chronic illnesses like heart disease. But not the young people, only the older people who have a choice to do so.”
Donahue told the Statesman in an interview last year that the faith healing exemption has complicated his job, which requires him to investigate all unattended deaths in Canyon County. In the past, members of the Followers of Christ would call the coroner directly, bypassing law enforcement and leaving Donahue’s office in the dark about unattended deaths.
In recent years, Donahue said, the sheriff’s office relationship with the church has improved. Still, he said, investigating faith healing deaths takes “a tremendous toll” on his deputies.
“You know you can’t do anything to prevent what’s going to happen,” he said. “In these cases, we know we can help and can make a difference. If they just had to follow the rest of the guidelines society does, we could save some of those children.”
Idaho Statesman reporter Becca Savransky contributed.
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