Idaho’s Unfair Religious Shield Laws

We just had a woman here in our county convicted of animal cruelty to her horses. They were found starving, dehydrated in a pen here in town. How people treat their animals is regulated in Idaho law. And all people are judged the same under that law.

Not all laws in Idaho are so even handed. For some reason we have decided how we treat our children requires special consideration for religion. If this woman had five children who were found starving and neglected, she could have gotten off if she’d claimed to be treating them with spiritual means. If she was Muslim and she claimed she was following Sharia law; if she was Christian and following the tenets of her religion, if she was Mormon and used prayer and anointed with oils, and any of these children were injured or died of an easily treatable disease, she would not be held to the same civil or criminal standard as a heathen who was just as cruel. But if her children were considered animals, she’d have no religious shield.

This isn’t an idle rant. There is good evidence children die in this state from such neglect. True, Idaho’s law allows a judge to order treatment, but this means someone needs to be aware of the suffering and then be willing to bring the case to a judge. Last summer we heard that three such times in the last six years the Department of Health and Welfare had intervened in such a way. Twice, the children were beyond treatment and taken home to die; one received court ordered treatment. There is evidence many more children did not come to this level of intervention.

The variety of state stances in this realm is broad. It seems we all want to respect the family, the culture, and the religious practices of our citizens. But there is no doubt the state has an obligation to protect children.

I am a doctor, but not a strong believer that medical treatments are always the correct choice. Medical treatments always benefit from spiritual support; likewise, spiritual practice should be open to other interventions. I grew up with Christian Science relatives. I treated some Christian Science patients. They were some of the best to serve, since they accepted such a strong sense of responsibility for their health. I respected their beliefs and I knew when they came to me for medical treatment they were conflicted. Honoring such conflict is our duty.

We do not honor this by carving out exceptions in the law. All citizens, regardless of faith or practice should be held to a similar standard. In fact, the Idaho Constitution prohibits such exceptions: “…nor shall any preference be given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship.”

Idaho must change its laws. The change need not be intrusive or rigid; it should promote open and trusting relationships in the community. But children in Idaho deserve this. We all do.


About ddxdx

A Family physician, former county coroner and former Idaho State Senator
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