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Opinion: This legislative session, Idaho must choose to protect its children

Photo by Aspen Jarvis

Idaho’s legislative session this January has already seen a significant change in how the state prosecutes domestic violence. The House Health and Welfare Committee chose to add acts of emotional and psychological violence to the state’s definition of domestic violence on Jan. 14, which includes acts such as coercion, intimidation and financial abuse. The rules also removed the requirements for a victim of domestic violence to be the perpetrator’s spouse, roommate or relative, rising to the standards used by many organizations that work with victims and survivors of abuse and violence. 

Before the session is over, however, the legislature has an obligation to protect children, a demographic that is often targeted by abuse and left vulnerable by the state in two key ways, entirely for the sake of parental autonomy and one of Idaho’s favorite catch-alls: religious freedom.

The first is child marriage. Though data is limited, a report from Unchained at Last showed that Idaho has the highest rates of child marriage in the nation with 4,080 children married between 2000 and 2010 and that such marriages are overwhelmingly between a girl under the age of 18 and a man older than 18 — sometimes much older. 

For children younger than 16 to be married in Idaho, consent is required of the child, parent or guardian and the court. For people older than 16, no judicial review is required. In Idaho, a person cannot legally consent to sex under the age of 16, yet there is no age limit for marriage, meaning that girls as young as 13 have been married in Idaho in recent years.

With this in mind, Rep. Melissa Wintrow (D-Boise) proposed legislation last February that would match Idaho’s marriage laws with its statutory rape laws, so that no one under 16 can be married at all, and 16 and 17-year-olds would require judicial approval. The bill was voted down, 39-28, because, as Rep. Bryan Zollinger (R-Idaho Falls) said, “[the bill]put too much authority in the government’s hands.”

In an Idaho State Journal article last October, Reps. Zollinger and Ehardt (R-Idaho Falls) announced plans to introduce child marriage legislation this session, which would put an age limit for marriage that has yet to be announced. They did not say that any of the approval processes would change.

The second significant way that Idaho legislators can protect children from unnecessary harm is by removing religious exemptions that protect parents or guardians from child abuse charges when a child dies or suffers a disabling injury due to a lack of medical care. Faith healing, which is practiced by the Followers of Christ Church — some of whom live in Canyon County — uses prayer to attempt to heal children. 

Protect Idaho Kids advocates for the removal of religious exemptions to prosecution; according to founder Bruce Wingate, faith healing has caused the deaths of at least 200 Idaho children. The practice of withholding critical medical care for children in the Followers of Christ Church has been decried for years, largely because of former members like Willie Hughes publicizing their experiences. 

As a child, Hughes watched his two-year-old brother die of treatable causes while his parents took themselves to the hospital, and has since worked to rally Idahoans against the religious exemptions. In February 2018, advocates placed child-sized coffins on the Capitol steps, each labeled with a name of a child who had died while their parents refused medical care and avoided abuse charges.

Wingate and Hughes both spoke as part of a panel discussion on Jan. 16 held at the Capitol to raise support for a legislative change. The nine-person panel included another former Follower of Christ Church congregant Linda Martin, Canyon County sheriff Kieran Donahue and Rep. John Gannon (D-Boise).

One of the barriers to a potential change in legislation is confusion with vaccination laws, which panelists assured would not be affected. The main barrier, however, is religious freedom, a notion that Idaho’s GOP takes as serious as any.

Religious freedom and parental autonomy are valid philosophical talking points, but they lose their grasp when they oppress other people, particularly children. Idaho’s children represent their future legacy. Current laws have fostered the highest rates of child marriage laws in the nation and sustained the rights of parents to abuse their children in favor of faith healing. 

Children, who cannot understand religious exemptions or give consent to marry, must be protected by laws that do not leave them vulnerable to adults who, at best, want to maintain autonomy from the government and at worst, want to use their power to harm them.

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