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Stapilus: The Tent Poles of Religious Exemption
Randy Stapilus – Ridenbaugh.com
Twin Falls Times-News
March 3, 2014
In 1874, George Reynolds, a secretaryto Mormon President Brigham Young and husband to two wives, was charged withthe crime of bigamy. The case didn’t come out of the blue: The LDS church(with Reynolds as volunteer) sought it as a test. Reynolds argued his marriageswere constitutionally protected as a practice of his religion, since the LDSchurch then supported polygamy on religious grounds. The case went to the U.S.Supreme Court.
The 1879 decision in Reynolds v.United States didn’t deliver as hoped. The court drew on the writings ofThomas Jefferson, who argued that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God … the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions.”;
The court closely followed hisreasoning: “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while theycannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may withpractices. Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part ofreligious worship; would it be seriously contended that the civil governmentunder which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice? Or if a wifereligiously believed it was her duty to burn herself upon the funeral pyre ofher dead husband; would it be beyond the power of the civil government toprevent her carrying her belief into practice?”;
So, how would the Idaho Legislature today answer those questions?
Freedom of religion has been at least the rhetorical premise for several pieces of legislation this year.
The best known, killed for now on Feb.19 but not before picking up steam toward passage, was House Bill 427, whichwould have barred government in Idaho from pulling or restricting aprofessional or occupational license for, “Declining to provide orparticipate in providing any service that violates the person’s sincerelyheld religious beliefs or exercise of religion except where performingemergency response duties for public safety.” Though the potential scope was broad, it was widely described as allowing professionals not to do business with gay people.
A bill cutting the other way didn’t even get a hearing.
Idaho law currently says, “Thepractice of a parent or guardian who chooses for his child treatment by prayeror spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to haveviolated the duty of care to such child.” Representative John Gannonproposed House Bill 458 to add, “However, this exemption shall not applywhenever a child’s medical condition has caused death or permanentdisability. ”;
Gannon’s prompt was nothypothetical. The Oregon-based Followers of Christ church was a locus of infant and child mortality, including a number of cases deemed to be easily treatable by conventional medicine, and it eventually drew state legislative response.
Church members were prosecuted in Oregon for failing to obtain medical treatment for their children. Since then, Oregon journalists found a remoteIdaho graveyard where many of the children of the sect, denied medicaltreatment, are buried. There is also an excellent book — 480 pages,meticulously researched — “In the Name of God” by CameronStauth, published last year on the subject. We are talking here about the lifeand preventable death of children who, according to the laws of Idaho and otherstates, aren’t old enough to make essential decisions for themselves.
The legislation specifically aimed atprotecting them was swiftly attacked by legislators, and requests for a hearingfor it have been denied. The bill appears dead for this session.
Given that, are there any limits,according to the Idaho legislators, to what a person should be able to do undera claim of religious conscience? The 1879 U.S. Supreme Court said that, ofcourse, polygamy and human sacrifice can be regulated and banned. Would the2014 Idaho Legislature agree?
Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor, author of The Idaho Political Field Guide, edits the Idaho Weekly Briefing, and blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. He can be reachedat firstname.lastname@example.org.