Mariah Walton is 20-years-old and permanently disabled. She has pulmonary hypertension and has to carry an oxygen tank in order to breathe. There have been times where there had to be screws in her bones to anchor in her breathing device. A heart and lung transplant may soon be in her future.
Things didn’t have to be this way. When she was an infant, a small defect in her heart could have easily been treated before the damage was irreversible. The problem was that her fundamentalist Mormon parents didn’t believe in doctors.
Living off the grid in Idaho in a fundamentalist Mormon sect isn’t ideal if you’re in need of urgent medical care. But having parents who refuse to seek out that care is an unimaginable nightmare. According to The Guardian, as Mariah’s condition worsened, her parents would prescribe her a steady regimen of prayer and “alternative medicine.” When she finally left home two years ago, she didn’t have a social security number or a birth certificate.
“Yes, I would like to see my parents prosecuted,” Mariah told The Guardian. “They deserve it… And it might stop others.”
Had they been in neighboring Oregon, her parents could have been booked for medical neglect. In Mariah’s case, as in scores of others of instances of [preventable] death among children in Idaho since the 1970s, laws exempt dogmatic faith healers from prosecution, and she and her sister recently took part in a panel discussion with lawmakers at the state capitol about the issue. Idaho is one of only six states that offer a faith-based shield for felony crimes such as manslaughter.
Some of those enjoying legal protection are fringe Mormon families like Mariah’s, many of whom live in the state’s north. But a large number of children have died in southern Idaho, near Boise, in families belonging to a reclusive, Pentecostal faith-healing sect called the Followers of Christ.
Idaho Republicans, who’ve enjoyed a long-standing majority in the state house, don’t seem interested in reforming laws that protect such practices, arguing that “religious freedoms” must be protected through exemptions. When Democratic legislator John Gannon proposed reforms of which he “never thought would really be that controversial,” the chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, Lee Heider, “refused to even grant it a hearing, effectively killing it.”
“Republicans didn’t feel the need to change the laws. We believe in the first amendment to the constitution. I don’t think that states have a right to interfere in religions,” Heider said.
When pressed by The Guardian on the fact that children are dying because of these religious exemptions, Heider made this odd comparison:
“Are we going to stop Methodists from reading the New Testament? Are we going to stop Catholics receiving the sacraments? That’s what these people believe in. They spoke to me and pointed to a tremendous number of examples where Christ healed people in the New Testament.”
From The Guardian:
While Idaho legislators stonewall, children in faith-healing communities continue to suffer.
According to coroners’ reports, in Canyon County alone just in the past decade at least 10 children in the Followers of Christ church have died. These include 15-year-old Arrian Granden, who died in 2012 after contracting food poisoning. She vomited so much that her esophagus ruptured. Untreated, she bled to death.
The other deaths are mostly infants who died during at-home births or soon after from treatable complications, simple infections or pneumonia.
There’s still hope. Bruce Wingate at Protect Idaho Kids is coordinating a new campaign called “Let Them Live”to pressure lawmakers to take action, and John Gannon plans to reintroduce his bill next year.
“It’s not going to go away,” Gannon said. “Dead children don’t care about the First Amendment.”
Featured image: screen grab/ABC News