CALDWELL • Pleasant Valley Cemetery near Caldwell holds about 550 graves, but too many of them hold the remains of children who didn’t have to die, says child advocate Linda Martin of Oregon.
Members of the Followers of Christ Church use the cemetery to bury their dead.
But if it weren’t for their religious beliefs, many of these children would be alive today, said Martin, who said her family members run the church.
Idaho Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, agrees.
Gannon introduced legislation Wednesday that would limit the “faith-healing” exemption in Idaho’s injury-to-a-child crime laws.
Idaho law now holds parents blameless if their religious beliefs put a child’s life at risk.
The Followers of Christ Church attracted attention several years ago in Oregon for its practice of faith healing. Members who violate church doctrine, including those who seek medical care, are shunned.
Gannon’s measure is based on Oregon legislation that removed legal protection for parents who choose faith healing over medical intervention for their children.
But Gannon is quick to note that his measure is “generic legislation” not aimed at a specific group.
“All parents need to treat their children medically,” Gannon told the Times-News Thursday.
Followers of Christ Church members “believe in faith healing over modern medicine,” Martin said. “When the child becomes sick, they call in the elders, and they anoint them with olive oil and pray over them.”
One-quarter of the graves in Pleasant Valley Cemetery — 144, according to an investigation by television station KATU in Portland, Ore. — hold children’s remains. Many of the children died from easily treatable afflictions, said Martin.
Pamela Jade Eells, 16, died in November 2011 of pneumonia, reported the Payette County coroner.
Arrian Jade Granden, 15, died after suffering food poisoning. After three days of vomiting, her esophagus ruptured, a June 2012 autopsy says.
Preston John Bowers had a fever for days before he died of pneumonia in March 2011 at 22 months old, says his autopsy report.
That same month, 14-year-old Rockwell Alexander Sevy died after a two-week illness. “As time went on, he began having more shortness of breath and the rattle in his chest got worse,” wrote Canyon County Coroner Vicki Degeus-Morris, concluding pneumonia.
What’s going on in Idaho “makes Oregon look like Boy Scouts,” said Martin.
The Followers of Christ Church has ties with the Church of the First Born in Colorado, a state that has gone through similar legislative remedies to prevent deaths due to withheld medical treatment.
As more states move to limit the faith-healing exemption, more church members are moving into Idaho, which has no restrictions, Martin told attendees of the Child-Friendly Faith Project Conference last November in Austin, Texas.
Gannon said his bill does not eliminate the faith-healing exemption, but it does give parents an incentive to seek medical help.
Although Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter “does not comment on pending legislation, he has expressed concern over some of the allegations” raised about the alarmingly high number of child deaths in the church, said Jon Hanian, Otter’s spokesman.
Gannon’s bill is not without opposition, however.
Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, said she fears the bill tramples on religious freedoms and parental rights.
“This is about religious beliefs, the belief God is in charge of whether they live, and God is in charge of whether they die,” said Perry. “This is about where they go for eternity.”
But the bill has support from others in the House.
Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, says he is willing to consider updating faith-healing exemptions.
“I’m concerned any parent would put their religious beliefs ahead of child welfare,” Wills said. “It just stuns me.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.