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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20 Responses to “What do Kim Davis Republicans think about this recent faith healing conviction?”

  1. Paty1209f says:

    Exactly, that’s why I call them pro-birther’s. Then most of them complain when their tax dollars go to supporting those children that end up in the system. So Christianly of them!

  2. mf_roe says:

    Long after renouncing the Christianity I was raised in I drove my daughters to christian churches because they were attracted to religion because their friends were believers

    . I have NO Right to tell anyone what to believe or what to reject. I don’t believe anyone has such rights The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church) is using religious freedom arguments to shield pedophilia. When the right to religious freedom causes harm to others that right must be curbed. 9-11 was the work of religious fanatics, the fact that we have made a royal mess of our response in no way diminished the fact that it was an unacceptable defense of the attackers’ religion.

    I agree it is horribly difficult to define the boundaries, but there is a point where society must assume some responsibility.

  3. goulo says:

    There’s a huge difference between outlawing certain specific (and fringe minority, not popular!) religiously-motivated practices, and outlawing all forms of religious teaching entirely! Surely you don’t seriously believe it’s realistic to expect the US government to entirely outlaw all forms of religious teaching (at least to children), including Christianity, do you?

    PS: As an example of it being hard to define the borderlines of these issues objectively and clearly, I’ll note that you identify as agnostic. Presumably that means you think atheism is not rational or reasonable, given that you follow reason. Meanwhile various atheists would say that atheism is the rational stance, and that agnosticism is not rational or reasonable. … So should the government outlaw the teaching of atheism or of agnosticism? :)

  4. mf_roe says:

    Ever heard of Ghost Dancers? Ever researched organized polygamy? Familiar with the outlawing of the Native American practice of using psychoactive plants in rituals?

    I have huge problems with all of those actions by government—-BUT it has established that intervention by government in religious practice is justified if those practices are proven harmful to the Common Good. Precedent, always a strong foundation, opens the door.

    As an Agnostic I recognize No belief system not founded on reason. Reason demands that if new facts or changed circumstances reverses our understanding of our world we must adjust. Good and Bad can reverse–growth is good until it reaches a point where it can’t be sustained. Not that long ago humans had little else than blind faith when disease struck—–that has changed.

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  6. Robert Manders says:

    Basically the parents killed their child due to ignorance. I hope this was their last child.

  7. goulo says:

    Although I tend to agree with you that religion & superstition are arguably much more harmful in terms of the big picture effect on civilization than a few children killed by their idiot parents, I rather suspect you’d have a MUCH harder time getting a majority consensus on it being a good idea for the government making it illegal for parents to teach/brainwash their kids religion/superstition… or even defining exactly what religion/superstition IS sufficiently rigorously to make such a law.

  8. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    I’m certain I remember a scene from “Pete and Tillie” where the actress goes off on God because of that phrase.

  9. mf_roe says:

    Yes a male Jewish baby must be 8 days old before he can be blessed with sexual mutilation and given his name. Girls in effect are considered as chattel and their sale is justified by scripture. Medieval might be too generous, Neanderthals would have related to some of this blood ritual shit.

  10. mf_roe says:

    To paraphrase ole Jess — “Sacrifice your family to serve ME.”

  11. 2karmanot says:

    Gives new meaning to Mr. Jeebus’s words: “Suffer the little children to come onto me.”

  12. Demosthenes says:

    Ms. Davis’s answer: He had already left the womb, so too bad.

  13. Gindy51 says:

    Like we always say, once they are out of the womb the anti abortionist are anything but pro life, even towards their own spawn.

  14. birdbrain53 says:

    And to make matters worse, these adult followers of that church are most likely anti-abortion, because “murder”.

  15. BeccaM says:

    Sadly, much of the law still reflects the lingering medieval belief that children are property and that a parent can do whatever they like to that child.

    The contrast is interesting though, how the traditional belief was that a fetus wasn’t a person or ‘ensouled’ at all until its first breath outside of the womb (some faiths believed ensoulment didn’t happen until months later, in fact) — but the fundamentalists today insist that the parents have no right to do as they like regarding the pregnancy, even when it goes horribly wrong.

  16. mf_roe says:

    The right to follow the teaching of some supernatural belief system justifies the 9-11 hijackers with equal weight. It is exactly for that reason that religious freedom must be tempered with limits—-harm to others being only one of the boundaries.

  17. mf_roe says:

    Your right, both are examples of someone invoking THEIR right to infringe the rights of others.

  18. mf_roe says:

    If government can outlaw faith healing parents from withholding medical treatment of minor children why isn’t it just as obligated in preventing the brainwashing of those same minors into belief systems of those parents? Far greater harm is done to our civilization by religious zealots by their poisoning young minds with superstition than outright murder thru withholding medical treatment.

  19. Indigo says:

    The other end of that horror show is prolonging the half-life of people who have lingered on machines for years while relatives and government squabble over whether to turn off the life-support machine or continue the appearance of life by artificial means. The Terri Schiavo case, blundered by our very own Jeb!, comes to mind.

  20. nicho says:

    Competent adults are free to follow whatever insane religious beliefs they choose and even choose to die if they imagine that’s what the bible tells them. They are not free to force those same beliefs on children. That’s already been decided in the courts.

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