The Followers of Christ is a religious sect that preaches faith healing in states such as Idaho, which offers a faith-based shield for felony crimes – despite alarming child mortality rates among these groups
Mariah Walton, who has pulmonary hypertension, at her home. ‘I would like to see my parents prosecuted,’ she says.
Photograph: Jason Wilson for The Guardian
The author, Jason Wilson in Boise, Idaho
Mariah Walton’s voice is quiet – her lungs have been wrecked by her illness, and her respirator doesn’t help. But her tone is resolute.
“Yes, I would like to see my parents prosecuted.”
“They deserve it.” She pauses. “And it might stop others.”
Mariah is 20 but she’s frail and permanently disabled. She has pulmonary hypertension and when she’s not bedridden, she has to carry an oxygen tank that allows her to breathe. At times, she has had screws in her bones to anchor her breathing device. She may soon have no option for a cure except a heart and lung transplant – an extremely risky procedure.
All this could have been prevented in her infancy by closing a small congenital hole in her heart. It could even have been successfully treated in later years, before irreversible damage was done. But Mariah’s parents were fundamentalist Mormons who went off the grid in northern Idaho in the 1990s and refused to take their children to doctors, believing that illnesses could be healed through faith and the power of prayer.
As she grew sicker and sicker, Mariah’s parents would pray over her and use alternative medicine. Until she finally left home two years ago, she did not have a social security number or a birth certificate.
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 preventible 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.
The Followers of Christ’s cemetery is full of graves marking the deaths of children who lived a day, a week, a month. Photograph: Jason Wilson for the Guardian
In Canyon County, just west of the capital, the sect’s Peaceful Valley cemetery is full of graves marking the deaths of children who lived a day, a week, a month. Last year, a task force set up by Idaho governor Butch Otter estimated that the child mortality rate for the Followers of Christ between 2002 and 2011 was 10 times that of Idaho as a whole.
The shield laws that prevent prosecutions in Idaho are an artifact of the Nixon administration. High-profile child abuse cases in the 1960s led pediatricians and activists to push for laws that combatted it. In order to help states fund such programs, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (Capta), which Richard Nixon signed in 1974.
But there was a fateful catch due to the influence of Nixon advisers John Erlichman and J R Haldeman, both lifelong Christian Scientists.
Boston College history professor Alan Rogers explains how the men – later jailed for their role in the Watergate scandal – were themselves members of a faith-healing sect, and acted to prevent their co-religionists being charged with crimes of neglect.
“Because Erlichman and Haldeman were Christian Scientists, they had inserted into the law a provision that said those who believe that prayer is the only way to cure illness are exempted from this law,” he said.
They also ensure that states had to pass similar exemptions in order to access Capta funds. The federal requirement was later relaxed, but the resultant state laws have had to be painstakingly repealed one by one.
Some states, such as Oregon, held on longer until high-profile deaths in the Followers of Christ church in Oregon City attracted the attention of local media; over time the state reversed course.
As a result, several Followers of Christ members in Oregon have been successfully prosecuted. In 2010, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley were convicted of criminally negligent homicide after the death of their toddler, Neal, who died from a congenital bladder blockage. In 2011, Timothy and Rebecca Wyland were convicted of criminal mistreatment and the court ordered that their daughter Aylana be medically treated for the growth that had been threatening to blind her. Later that year, Dale and Shannon Hickman were convicted of second-degree manslaughter two years after their newborn son died of a simple infection.
Next door, Idaho presents a polar opposition to Oregon. Republicans, who enjoy an effective permanent majority in the state house, are surprisingly reluctant to even consider reform. Last year, the governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk recommended change: “Religious freedoms must be protected; but vulnerable children must also be appropriately protected from unnecessary harm and death.” Democratic legislator John Gannon proposed a repeal bill 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.
Brian Hoyt at home in Boise. Photograph: Jason Wilson for the Guardian
Brian Hoyt, who lives in Boise, grew up in the Followers of Christ church.
Hoyt is a fit 43, and lives in a well-scrubbed suburban neighborhood. He runs a successful window cleaning business that started with a squeegee mop and a bucket after his teenage escape from home left him with no cash and few educational opportunities. When I visited him, his house was being renovated – what was once a “barebones bachelor pad” now accommodates his partner and step-children. Slowly, Hoyt has developed the capacity for family life, after a life in the sect left him “unable to relate to families” for a long time. “I didn’t understand the concept,” he said.
He lost his faith around the age of five, when a baby died in his arms in the course of a failed healing. While elders prayed, Hoyt was in charge of removing its mucus with a suction device. He was told that the child died because of his own lack of faith. Something snapped, and he remembers thinking: “How can this possibly be God’s work?” His apostasy set up lifelong conflicts with his parents and church elders.
In just one incident, when he was 12, Hoyt broke his ankle during a wrestling tryout. “I ended up shattering two bones in my foot,” he said. His parents approached the situation with the usual Followers remedies – rubbing the injury with “rancid olive oil” and having him swig on Kosher wine.
Intermittently, they would have him attempt to walk. Each time, “my body would just go into shock and I would pass out”.
“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. 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. 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.
Other people who have left the group, such as Linda Martin, told similar tales of coercion, failed healing using only rancid olive oil, and a high level of infant mortality, isolation and secrecy. Violence, she said, was “the reason I left home. My childhood and Brian’s were very similar.” Deaths from untreated illness are attributed to “God’s will. Their lives are dominated by God’s will.”
Martin and Hoyt have both lobbied to change the laws, with Martin in particular devoting years of patient research to documenting deaths and other church activities. Hoyt has faced harassment online and at his home, and church members have even tried to undermine his business.
So far, their testimonies of abuse have not convinced Idaho’s Republican legislators. Senator Heider, for one, describes the Followers of Christ as “very nice people”.
Linda Martin, who left the Followers of Christ. Photograph: Jason Wilson for the Guardian
Child advocate and author Janet Heimlich, who has campaigned against exemptions around the country, says that Heider told her before the legislative session began that “he would carry the bill” and helped with the production of a draft, but by the time the session began in October he indicated that no bill would be passed or even heard.
Heider’s repeated response to these claims was a welter of contradictions and bluster.
After telling the Guardian that no bill was lodged (John Gannon confirmed that he did, as was 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.
But if we take Heider at his word concerning the reasons for his opposition, his view of the constitution is simply mistaken.
Alan Rogers, the Boston College history professor, points to a string of US supreme court decisions that distinguish between freedom of belief and freedom of practice, which affirm the former and limit the latter where it causes harm. These stretch back as far as Reynolds v United States in 1878, which forbade Mormon polygamy, and include Prince v Massachusetts, which affirmed the federal government’s ability to secure the welfare of children even when it conflicts with religious belief.
Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow at Political Research Associates, has long researched the connection between religion and conservatism. He points out that “almost all American politicians are cowards when it comes to religion”.
Religious liberty is a powerful idea, and a great achievement in the history of western civilization, but “it’s also used as a tool by the rich and the powerful, and by politicians who want to look the other way”.
There’s also the fact that conservatives have been mobilizing religious liberty in recent years, first as a reason to kill same-sex marriage at the state level, and now to limit the scope of the supreme court’s decision that it cannot be outlawed by states.
A taskforce set up by the Idaho governor estimated that the child mortality rate for the Followers of Christ between 2002 and 2011 was 10 times that of Idaho as a whole. Photograph: Jason Wilson for 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.
In one Canyon County report on the death of an infant called Asher Sevy, we see the difficulty that the shield laws create for local authorities.
When Sevy died in 2006, a Canyon County coroner’s deputy attended by two sherriff’s deputies asked to take the body away for an autopsy. According to the coroner’s account, the family “were very much against this for any reason”, and informed the deputy that she “was not going with me or anyone else” and removal would have to be done “forcefully”.
After a liaison with the county’s chief deputy and the prosecutor’s office, the assembled county officials decided to leave “rather than escalate a problem that could be worse than it was now”. The conclusion? “The cause [of death] will go down as undetermined.”
Autopsies are at the coroner’s discretion, and the deputy, Bill Kirby, did write that at the time there was “no evidence of a crime”. The incident is unsettling, though.
Canyon County coroner Vicki DeGeus-Morriss, who has been in office since 1991, refused to speak directly with the Guardian. However Joe Decker, a county spokesman, insisted that the coroner and other officials had been successful in building a better relationship with the Followers.
“Back when Vicki first took office, the Followers rarely, if ever, reported a death. And when they did, they would often be uncooperative with both the Coroner and law enforcement when they arrived on scene,” Decker said. Now, they “have a relationship in which every single death is reported and autopsies are almost always performed”.
For the outsider, there may still be something unsatisfying about this – a lingering impression that exemptions from child abuse prosecutions have led Followers to form the impression that the law can be negotiated with.
Nevertheless, local officials can’t make laws, only enforce them. The frustration at the local effects of shield laws was perhaps evident in the support that Canyon County prosecutor Brian Taylor gave to efforts to change the laws.
Campaigners such as Mariah Walton, Janet Heimlich, Linda Martin and Brian Hoyt are determined not to let this matter rest in the next legislative session.
A new “Let Them Live” campaign, involving a television ad campaign featuring Mariah, is being coordinated by Bruce Wingate at Protect Idaho Kids. Resources are limited, but all are confident that improved public awareness will build pressure on legislators.
Gannon, the Democratic legislator, says for his part that his bill will be back next year. “It’s not going to go away,” he says. “Dead children don’t care about the first amendment.”