Should belief in the power of prayer excuse a parent from reporting sexual and physical abuse against a child? Of course not. The question is silly, even insulting.
Yet Idaho allows parents to deny life-saving medical care in the name of their faith, and Idaho’s Legislature continues to defend the state law that lets the parents of a child who dies untreated escape legal responsibility.
The case of a mother and father charged last week with felony injury to a child might change that. At the very least, it should prompt Idaho citizens and leaders to take a new look at the Idaho law that allows parents to claim a religious exemption for failing to intervene to save a child.
Obviously, no sensible person would propose a religious exemption to excuse sexual abuse. But that’s precisely our point. To exempt a fatal form of child abuse and not exempt abuses that children survive serves only to highlight the fallacy that undergirds this 1970s-era exemption.
Earlier this month, Sarah Kester told Canyon County sheriff’s deputies that she prayed to God to stop her husband from abusing four young girls, rather than report the abuse to law enforcement. She said it was against her faith to involve government agencies. Obviously, that’s not acceptable and she has been charged with one count and her husband Lester with four counts.
The Caldwell couple are members of the Followers of Christ, a church known for its sincerely and deeply held belief in healing by prayer and God’s will rather than human medical care. Multiple Idaho child deaths, some of them Followers’ members, have inspired proposals in the Idaho Legislature to do away with the religious exemption that keeps such parents from being charged with a crime when a child dies.
We understand that legislators are respectful of religious freedoms, having seen what happens when a majority deems Mormons or Catholics or Jews worthy of fewer freedoms than others. Some of history’s most terrible wrongs have been religious discrimination disguised as the “public good.” Idaho lawmakers are right to insist on a high bar when it comes to restricting anyone’s freedom of religion.
But we hope this case prompts citizens to insist that those legislators to re-think the notion of a faith-healing exemption regarding child welfare. If “It’s God’s will” is not a legally defensible response to child sexual abuse, can it be an acceptable substitute when a child dies after being denied lifesaving medical care?
Logic and morality and decency say no.
Respecting the rights of adults is a different business than protecting children from abuse. But the two get wrapped together in the debate over medical care in a way we would never apply to cases of sex abuse or gratification. If adults want to decline medical treatment for themselves, that is self-determination. But a 10-year-old child can no more give informed consent to refuse care for a life-threatening disease than she can to engage in sex with an adult.
What is so clear in the one case ought to be just as clear in the other. Children are not old enough or independent enough to make life-and-death decisions. Yet state law denies those children their right to life and liberty in order to protect the religious freedom of their parents. That’s illogical and wrong-headed, as the allegations in the Kester case reveal.
Children deserve protection from their parents and, failing that, the protection of the state. Anything less is child abuse, and should not be countenanced in our state’s laws.