What do Kim Davis Republicans think about this recent faith healing conviction?

Last week, an Oregon court upheld second-degree manslaughter convictions for Shannon and Dale Hickman, whose son, David, died of staphylococcus pneumonia just nine hours after being born prematurely. The Oregon State Medical Examiner’s office determined that, had the couple called 911 as soon as David was born, he would have almost certainly lived.

The Hickmans did not call 911 because they are members of the Followers of Christ Church, which does not believe in seeking traditional medical care. James 5:15 reads, “And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up,” and the Followers of Christ follow that passage, well, religiously.

Factoring into the court’s decision to uphold the conviction was the couple’s insistence that, looking back, they would not have handled David’s situation any differently. As Shannon Hickman said, “We do what the Bible tells us, and we put God first and ask for faith.”

Church and State, via Shutterstock

Church and State, via Shutterstock

The Hickmans’ defense rested on their claim that, because of their religious beliefs, the state would have to prove that they “knowingly” caused their child’s death. In Oregon, this claim didn’t hold water; the state’s protections for religious freedom did not cover harm to the Hickmans’ child and they could still be tried for criminal negligence. As Samantha Allen at the Daily Beast put it, “Adult members of the Followers of Christ Church do not have to believe in medicine but they still have to take their dying children to the hospital. In Oregon, religious freedom has its limits.”

However, the Hickmans would have had a stronger case in 39 other states (plus Washington, DC) that have, according to the National District Attorneys Association, “laws providing that parents or caretakers who fail to provide medical assistance to a child because of their religious beliefs are not criminally liable for harm to the child.” For example, Idaho has a law that explicitly protects parents who practice faith healing, which reads “who chooses for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to have violated the duty of care to such child.” There are also no federal laws that require care for children over parents’ religious objections.

It wasn’t until 2011 that Oregon completely removed such protections for faith healing from their books, and that was in direct response to the Hickmans’ case.

The question of whether faith healing should be protected — even if it results in harm to children — is instructive because it puts religious freedom in much starker terms than the issue is usually discussed. Whether county clerks should be required to issue marriage licenses to couples who do not share their religious beliefs, while important, isn’t a matter of life or death. And while the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision ensures that every same-sex couple who wants to get married will, over the most asinine objections of social conservatives, eventually obtain a marriage license, children continue to die due to their parents’ sincerely-held religious belief that their diseases are merely God’s test of their faith. As Allen wrote:

A 2013 investigation by Portland ABC affiliate KATU found 10 more children buried in a Boise, Idaho cemetery who may have died because of their faith-healing parents, many of them Followers of Christ. Among the gravestones, KATU reporter Dan Tilkin found children who had died of untreated pneumonia, diabetes, and other ailments.

One 15-year-old girl, Tilkin reported, contracted a case of food poisoning, which eventually caused her esophagus to rupture after the vomiting became severe. She died of cardiac arrest.

Of the 553 marked graves at the cemetery, 144 (over 25 percent) appeared to be children younger than 18.

The parents’ defense? Religious freedom. As KATU reported at the time:

“What I will talk to you about is the law,” Dan Sevy said. “I would like to remind you this country was founded on religious freedom, and on freedom in general. I would like to say, I picture freedom as a full object. It’s not like you take “a” freedom away. It’s that you chip at the entire thing. Freedom is freedom. Whenever you try to restrict any one person, then you’re chipping away at freedom. Yours and mine.”

That was that. Sevy didn’t want to talk any more about it.

As former Followers of Christ member Linda Martin said of the Idaho deaths, “The state of Idaho has the religious shield laws to where you can just about murder your child in cold blood and claim religious exemptions and get away with it.”

This is the logical conclusion of the arguments religious freedom absolutists make in defense of conscience clauses and religious exemptions for public officials. That being the case, it would be particularly useful to ask presidential candidates — especially those who have made religious liberty central themes in their campaigns, such as Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee — how they feel about these cases. Do they think that religious freedom is so important that we should allow children to suffer and die as a direct result of their parents’ religious beliefs, especially considering the fact that those children may or may not grow up to share those beliefs?

I rather doubt it, but given the positions they’ve taken on religious liberty thus far in the campaign, I’m not sure. On the one hand, we weren’t able to get straight answers out of these candidates when they were asked if they felt that Muslims with similar religious objections to Kim Davis should be afforded the same protections Davis was seeking. So they clearly feel that religious liberty has some kind of limit. Then again, Followers of Christ are, well, followers of Christ, making it all the more likely that Cruz, et al come to their defense. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the recent debates about religious freedom, it’s that they aren’t about religious freedom; they’re about Christian privilege.

This being the case, it’s entirely plausible that Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee are willing to plant their flag on the side of the people who sincerely believe that dead children are bad but government is worse. As they’ve grown rather fond of saying that religious freedom — particularly for Christians — is boundless, extending into the public sphere, it’s time they put that claim through a more rigorous stress test.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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