In the 1944 decision of Prince v. Massachusetts, which can be found at 321 U.S. 158, the United States Supreme Court upheld the ability of a state to protect a child against a parent’s harmful religious practices. The Court said “the right to practice religion freely does not include the right to expose” a child “to ill health or death.”
The Prince decision recognized that people of faith have the constitutional right to believe as they wish. However, a state government may step in where a parent’s spiritual beliefs cause harm to his or her children. “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow that they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.”
Idaho has a long-standing tradition of punishing those parents who refuse to “furnish necessary food, clothing, shelter, or medical attention” to their children (Idaho Code section 18-401), as well as any person who endangers the health of a child (Idaho Code section 18-1501). Those two statutes protected the health of Idaho kids for many years, until the Legislature inserted faith-healing provisions into both of them in 1972. Since then, persons who practice faith healing may refuse to provide food and medical care to their children, without penalty, even if the children die or suffer grievous bodily harm.
The main beneficiary of the faith-healing exemption is the Followers of Christ group in Canyon County. Church graveyards contain the remains of many children who could have been saved by readily available medical care.
The statutory faith-healing exemptions certainly appear to violate the Guaranty of Religious Liberty provision (Article 1, Section 4) of the Idaho Constitution. The framers of the Constitution wanted to protect religious freedom, but were also intent on preventing religious preferences. The framers imposed a stricter separation of church and state for Idaho than under the U.S. Constitution.
Our Constitution prohibits “any preference being given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship.” Faith-healing looks very much like a prohibited preference for a particular mode of worship, in addition to being a horrible fate for innocent children. While the great majority of Idaho citizens would be held to answer for serious criminal charges for starving a child or refusing to provide the child with necessary medical care, faith-healers can do so without legal consequence.
The faith-healing exemption has not been tested in court yet, but that is a possible option for removing the preference. However, the Legislature caused the problem and should take responsibility for correcting it.
Each year, the Legislature passes legislation intended to protect fetuses from being aborted. This is largely based on the religious belief that a soul is created at inception, that it has the right to live, and that government must act to protect its right to life until it is carried to term.
The contention is that the government has a strong role in protecting the right to life of every fetus. Wouldn’t it follow that the government should protect the life and health of every child born in the state? Why should the law give faith-healers a preference to deny their children life-saving medical care, as well as necessary food, clothing and shelter?
Let’s ask our legislators to remove the religious preference of faith-healers so that they, like all of the rest of us, must provide reasonable care for their kids. There is no good reason why those kids should be denied the right to life. And, it should be stressed that the intent of removing the preference is not to punish people, but to establish the limits of acceptable conduct toward vulnerable children.