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Mariah Walton

Mariah Walton, who grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon family in Declo that didn’t believe in seeking medical treatment, spoke at a forum on faith healing and child deaths at the Idaho Capitol in February. She told the story of how she discovered she had pulmonary hypertension when she was 18.

The Guardian, a British newspaper that is one of the most widely read papers in the world, published a story Wednesday on Idaho’s law that exempts from prosecution parents who believe in faith healing and whose children get seriously ill or die as a result.

Written by Jason Wilson, who lives in Portland and who has written about other regional issues such as the Burns occupation and last year’s Umpqua Community College shooting, the piece leads with Mariah Walton, who grew up in Declo and who is seriously ill today because her parents never got the hole in her heart treated when she was a child.

The piece says Walton is going to be the face of a television campaign by Protect Idaho Kids, an educational nonprofit that has been involved in other child welfare-related causes, lobbying for changing the law. The article features interviews with a couple of other people who may be familiar to those following the issue, including Brian Hoyt and Linda Martin, both of whom grew up in Followers of Christ families in the Boise area and saw people die from lack of medical treatment.

The Followers believe in anointing with oil and prayer to treat illnesses. Martin, who lives in Oregon now, has been visiting the Capitol for the past few years talking to Idaho lawmakers about changing the law. Hoyt told the Guardian about what happened when he broke his foot at a school wrestling tryout when he was 12.

“I would wake up to my step-dad, my uncles and the other elders of the church kicking me and beating me, calling me a fag, because I didn’t have enough faith to let God come in and heal me, while my mom and my aunts were sitting there watching,” Hoyt said. “And that’s called faith healing.”

“He had so much time off with the untreated fracture that his school demanded a medical certificate to cover the absence,” the article continues. “Forced to take him to a doctor, his mother spent most of the consultation accusing the doctor of being a pedophile.

“He was given a cast and medication but immediately upon returning home, the medication was flushed down the toilet, leaving him with no pain relief. His second walking cast was cut off by male relatives at home with a circular saw.”

Idaho exempts parents from prosecution under child injury laws if they are practicing faith healing and a child gets sick or dies who could have been saved by medical treatment. While most states have some level of religious exemptions from ordinary medical treatment requirements written into their laws, added in the 1970s because Nixon administration officials and Christian Scientists John Erlichman and J.R. Haldeman made it a condition for some federal funding, Idaho’s is one of the most expansive — it’s one of the few states that allows religious belief as a defense when a child dies.

Boise Democrat John Gannon drafted bills in 2014 and again this year looking to change the law, but the bills have never gotten a hearing, with Republican leaders citing concerns about infringing on religious freedom. Senate Health and Welfare Chairman Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, said in January of this year that he would allow a hearing on a bill, but in early March said there wasn’t enough time to hold a hearing this session. Heider told the Guardian basically what he told me and other reporters in early March — that changing the law would infringe on religious freedom and that out-of-staters, not Idahoans, were the ones lobbying to change the law:

“Heider’s repeated response to these claims was a welter of contradictions and bluster,” Wilson wrote.

“After telling the Guardian that no bill was lodged (John Gannon confirmed that he did, as was {a class=”u-underline” href=””}reported in local media in February) and that he had been told by the attorney general and the Canyon County prosecuting attorney that the laws did not need to change (both men deny saying this), Heider took refuge in the US constitution.

“’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.’

“When pressed on the fact that children are dying unnecessarily as a result of exemptions, Heider makes an 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.’

“Heider blamed outsiders for stirring the pot on this issue, even challenging the Guardian’s right to take an interest in the story, asking ‘what difference does it make to you?’ and adding ‘is the United States coming in and trying to change Idaho’s laws?’ He confirmed that he attended a Followers of Christ service last year — a rare privilege for an outsider from a group that refuses to speak to reporters.”

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