More children die because of faith-based medical neglect in Idaho than in any other state. The combination of Idaho’s terrible laws and several congregations with religious beliefs against medical care has cost the lives of hundreds of children. Only eight other states have a statutory religious exemption from manslaughter or negligent homicide of a child.

The main sect in Idaho with beliefs against medical care is the Followers of Christ. Others are the Church of the Firstborn and the Christian Science Church. The Followers and Firstborners have similar historical roots and congregations in Oregon who have also lost children because of medical neglect. After Oregon repealed its religious exemptions in 2011, some Oregon Followers have reportedly moved to the safe haven of Idaho where faith-based medical neglect of children is legal.

Child mortality among the Idaho Followers is difficult to track. The Followers use several cemeteries and may also bury on private property, which is legal in Idaho. Nevertheless, some data indicate that their child mortality is elevated. From January 1, 2002 through 2017, 186,843 Idaho residents died, and 5,586 of them were minor children or stillbirths. Statewide during those years only 3% of Idaho deaths were minor children or stillbirths.

By contrast, in Idaho’s Peaceful Valley Cemetery, which is controlled by the Followers of Christ, 63 of the 189 graves of those dying from 2002 through 2017 are minor children or stillborns. In Peaceful Valley 33% of the graves during those years are of minor children or stillbirths, more than ten times the proportion of deaths among minor children and stillbirths statewide.*

Furthermore, the leading cause of death for all Idaho children older than one year is accidents, but accidents are probably only a small fraction of the deaths among the Followers’ children.

(See a spreadsheet on the Followers of Christ child deaths we have information about.)

Child rights advocates wrote to Idaho officials and media about these deaths and the reasons for them as long ago as 1999, but got no response. Late in 2013, however, thanks mainly to the investigative work of KATU-TV in Portland, Oregon, some Idaho media began covering the deaths in faith-healing sects and the religious exemption laws.

What needs to be done?

No one expects people who believe in faith-healing to change their beliefs. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects their right to have whatever religious beliefs they choose – but not at the expense of causing harm, however unintentionally, to children. As the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow 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.” Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944)

(See here for Q&A on the First Amendment and other matters.)

Children are the least able among us to defend themselves from harm. Parents have a duty to protect them, and that duty should be communicated to parents and to society with maximum clarity. Curent Idaho law, however, tells parents in faith-healing sects they have no duty to provide medical care for their child even when the child is dying.

There are over a thousand religious denominations in this country, and we would have anarchy if everyone was allowed to act out his religious beliefs without limitation.

  • Some parents have beaten their children to death because of their interpretation of Bible verses.
  • Some have caused permanent injury or death when they believed their children were demon-possessed.
  • Pennsylvania parents let a child starve to death because they be­lieved their money had to go to a church.
  • The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints church has married girls younger than ten to much older men in polygamous relationships.

To its credit, Idaho does not have laws allowing any of those abuses. Idaho has seen rightly that none of those religious practices should be legal.  It should not have laws allowing medical neglect in the name of religion to be legal either.  Medical neglect may not be as exotic or sensational as exorcism and polygamy, but it has been even more deadly to Idaho’s children.

There’s a remedy. This situation can be put right. Repeal the religious exemptions.

Idaho’s religious exemptions from providing medical care to sick and injured children in the criminal and civil codes can be repealed. The only question is, Do Idahoans and their representatives have the moral and political will to do so?

(For the proposed text for a repeal bill, and the full rationale for its passage, read here.)

The nuts and bolts of repeal

In the criminal code, prosecutors are prevented from filing charges when children die in faith-healing sects due to lack of medical treatment because Idaho’s definition of manslaughter at §18-4006(2) requires a prosecutor to prove that “an unlawful act” has been committed. This means s/he has to prove that “nonsupport” or “injury to a child” has been committed. However, both crimes have excuses for those relying only on faith:

  • The religious defense to “injury to children” states, “The practice of a parent or guardian who chooses for his/her child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to have violated the duty of care to such child.” Idaho Code 18-1501(4)
  • And the religious defense to “criminal nonsupport” states, “The practice of a parent or guardian who chooses for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to be a violation of the duty of care to such child.” Idaho Code 18-401(2)

Since the prosecutor cannot prove that nonsupport or injury to a child was committed, s/he cannot prove a manslaughter charge.

In the civil code, there are two religious exemptions which should also be repealed:

    • “[N]o 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. . . .” Idaho Code 16-1602(28)(a)
    • “In making its order under subsection (a) of this section [for emergency medical treatment], the court shall take into consideration any treatment being given the child by prayer through spiritual means alone, if the child or his parent, guardian or legal custodian are adherents of a bona fide religious denomination that relies exclusively on this form of treatment in lieu of medical treatment.” Idaho Code 16-1627(3) (emphasis added in above statutes)


These laws may give mandated reporters the assumption that children deprived of medical care on religious grounds are not neglected, but are instead getting “treatment” that is a legal substitute for medical care.  It needs to be made clear to public officials and parents that cases of religion-based deprivation of medical care are neglect and should be reported to Child Protection Services, that CPS has statutory authority to investigate these cases, and that courts have authority to order medical care for children over religious objections of parents.

Another problem is that these laws reward fanaticism. They give a privilege only to those who rely exclusively on spiritual means to heal a child. If the parent combines prayer with home remedies — Gatorade, cool baths, etc. — then s/he cannot have the religious exemption.  If the parent calls 911 at the last minute, then s/he was not relying exclusively on spiritual means alone and could be prosecuted.  Idaho should not have a law that penalizes a parent for calling 911.

Furthermore, the last law is constitutionally suspect for requiring the state to give special consideration only to those who belong to a “bona fide religious denomination that relies exclusively on this form of treatment in lieu of medical treatment.”  Many court rulings have held that the state cannot give a religious privilege only to those who belong to certain churches.  If the state gives a religious privilege it must give it to everyone who has personal beliefs on the issue whether they’re endorsed by a church or not. We would also question whether the state has a right to determine which denominations are bona fide.

(See here to learn how the religious exemptions became part of Idaho law in the first place.)

If not now, when?

In the 2014 legislative session Representative John Gannon introduced a bill which modified the current religious exemptions. While it was not the needed full repeal, it was at least a step in the right direction. The bill was referred to committee, but no hearings were held. According to the Associated Press, the House leadership “feared an emotionally charged hearing pitting religious freedom against values like child welfare.” Especially so in an election year. Wait for the 2015 session, child advocates were told, when the elections are over.

But then the 2015 legislative session came and went with no bill to protect children in anti-medical sects even introduced.

In the fall Senator Lee Heider promised to support a bill to protect these children and asked the Attorney General to prepare it but after attending a Followers of Christ church service in January, 2016, he said he opposed the bill. He nevertheless promised to allow a public hearing on it in the committee he chairs.

Representative John Gannon then tried to introduce the bill prepared by the Attorney General but Heider would not allow the bill to be printed. Heider claims it was given to him too late; Gannon disputes that.

In its 2015 report Governor Otter’s Task Force on Children at Risk recommended the religious exemption statutes be changed to protect the children in anti-medical sects. Instead of promoting its recommendation, the Governor asked the legislature to appoint a work group to study the issue. The legislature’s work group held two hearings but issued no report and made no recommendations.

At the last possible moment of the 2017 legislative session, the work group co-chair Senator Dan Johnson introduced SB1182, which did not touch the criminal code exemptions and made minor, confusing changes to the civil code.

The bill was defeated on the Senate floor by 24-11. Several who voted against it claimed the state had no right at all to intervene in families.

*The statewide data were provided by Idaho Vital Statistics and are of Idaho residents who died either in or outside of Idaho. The numbers for Peaceful Valley are based on the graves listed there on Some graves might not be of Idaho residents. While unlikely, it is possible that some graves are not of Followers of Christ persons.