According to the Bible, King Solomon built a temple to the pagan god Molek on a peak many meters above the shrine he’d built for Abraham’s God. There, children were sacrificed, while drums beat to keep outsiders from hearing their screams. The hill became known as the Mount of Corruption.
That something analogous could exist in modern America seems impossible, but Linda Martin has been sounding the alarm over what she says are disturbing religious practices among a small sect in Idaho. Late last year, journalists took notice; what their investigations uncovered was so shocking that by the start of this year state lawmakers put together a bill meant to eliminate faith-healing exemptions in Idaho’s child abuse laws.
At the center of the debate is a group that calls itself the Followers of Christ. Martin grew up in their faith and is well acquainted with their practices. She says she’s related to a majority of the group’s members.
Last November, Martin led a television news crew to a lonely hilltop just outside of Boise, Idaho. There, cameras documented rows of grave markers, many of them carved with the names and brief life spans of teenagers, babies, and toddlers. The place is known as the Peaceful Valley Cemetery, but for Martin there is nothing peaceful about it.
“A quarter of the graves in that cemetery are of children,” Martin said — a surprising figure in an era when most deaths result from diseases of old age.
Similarities to biblical child sacrifices
Although detested by God, the worship of Molek crops up among so-called believers in both the Old and New Testaments. Often referred to as “passing their sons and daughters through the fire,” the sacrifices were notably always children. Described as exceptionally painful, these innocent deaths were usually witnessed by the parents, who shared sympathetically in their own child’s suffering. By enduring, the adults hoped to prove their faith and earn favor from a deity.
Linda Martin sees similarities in the practices of the Followers of Christ.
Denied medical attention because of their parents’ religious beliefs, children of the Followers have suffered needless deaths. Micah Taylor Eells lived only four days before dying of what was, according to the autopsy, “likely an intestinal blockage.” Arrian Jade Granden, 15, contracted food poisoning and vomited for three days before her esophagus ruptured; she fell into cardiac arrest and later died.
Others perished from pneumonia, including 2-year-old Preston Bowers and 14-year-old Rockwell Sevy. For weeks, Sevy grew weaker, his breath rattling as a chest cold progressed to pneumonia. In the end, his mother held him in her lap while he fought for his last gasp.
Dr. Charles Garrison autopsied the body of a Follower’s 16-year-old daughter. After a lengthy battle with a pelvic bone infection, she, too, succumbed to pneumonia. “If you’ve ever been in a situation where you can’t breathe, it’s pretty desperate,” Dr. Garrison told reporters. “You’re drowning in your own fluids.”
In each of these cases, a responsible adult waited nearby, deliberately fending off antibiotics and other medical treatments that would almost certainly have snatched these children out of the fire. For most Idahoans, such failures to act would constitute criminal behavior, but due to the state’s legal loophole, a parent who “chooses for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone” is immune from prosecution.
Faith healing or faith killing?
Hoping to remedy that situation, Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, introduced House Bill 458, which would have amended existing laws “to provide that the exemption for treatment by prayer shall not apply when a child’s medical condition has caused death or disability.”
The Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Idaho Pediatrics Association, CHILD (Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty), The Interfaith Alliance, and the Child Friendly Faith Project all supported the House bill. Among those who opposed was Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa. “[F]or them, eternity hinges on it,” Perry said in an interview. “It’s really hard to ask somebody to give up your eternity to fill a statute.”
Pastor Doug Bursch offers another perspective. Bursch, an adjunct professor for Life Pacific College and pastor of Evergreen Foursquare Church in Auburn, Washington, said, “Christians believe in the healing power of faith. But there is a difference between believing that God can heal you and believing that you earn your place in the afterlife by letting children die. That isn’t faith healing; it is faith killing.”
Mark Jerome is a member of the Followers of Christ who withheld medical care from his granddaughter, a premature infant, who likely died as a result. In his own defense, he said, “That’s the way we believe. We believe in God and the way God handles the situation, the way we do things.”
Linda Martin has also seen evidence of a troubling double standard: “They let their kids die, and then when the pain is intolerable for them, they seek medical help, often at taxpayers’ expense.”
One example is the case of Jeffrey and Marci Beagley, members of the Oregon branch of the Followers. The Beagleys faced charges after their 16-year-old son died from an undiagnosed congenital urinary blockage. During gavel-to-gavel television coverage of their trial, it was reported that Marci had secretly obtained medical treatment for herself, including care for an ingrown toenail.
Martin says such hypocrisy is not rare among the Followers.
“My brother refused to carry medical insurance because he was a lifelong member of the Followers of Christ,” Martin said. “He had a child who died. But his attitude changed when he ended up with a heart condition. By my estimate, it may have cost taxpayers approximately $500,000 to prolong his life by three years.”
The Beagleys were ultimately imprisoned after being convicted of criminally negligent homicide. But the Beagleys lived in Oregon — in Idaho, such convictions would be impossible.
Efforts to criminalize thwarted
Gannon’s bid to change Idaho’s faith-healing exemption faced considerable opposition. For weeks, Perry banged the figurative drum for the Followers of Christ, reinforcing that this was a matter of private religious beliefs.
Rep. Gannon had a different perspective: “This is basically a child’s right to live to adulthood.”
On February 26, House Speaker Scott Bedke announced through a surrogate that the proposed change . No reason was provided, but media outlets suggested that lawmakers may have “feared an emotionally charged hearing”
“It’s an election year and lawmakers didn’t want voters to hear them arguing in favor of parents’ right to let their children die,” said Martin. “Rather than telling the public what they stand for, politicians want to sweep this issue under the rug.”
Turning a blind eye to children’s faith-healing deaths has a long precedent in Idaho, but Martin is not giving up her battle for change. Her Facebook group, called “Silent Cries The Faces of Religious Abuse,” has attracted a few hundred members, and they are already planning a strategy for the next legislative session.
Others have suggested that medical neglect has no place in Christianity. According to Pastor Doug Bursch: “A child’s suffering and death serves no spiritual purpose for those who believe that salvation comes solely through faith in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This exemption is for people whose faith is in something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Linda Martin believes the law would change if “spirit-filled” churches and mainline denominations realized what was being done in God’s name: “This is not an issue of people who want the freedom to refuse medical treatment for themselves; the issue is children who are being denied the basic right to be alive. And the responsibility is on voters, because these children’s rights have been taken away through the inaction of our elected officials.”
Bursch said his hope is that spiritual leaders will bring good teaching about this issue into the debate. “Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus suggest that putting a child to death is an act of spiritual devotion,” he said. “In fact, God speaks against this form of worship many times.”
Image: Peter Paul Reubens, Saturn devouring his son, 1636-1638.