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When Does Religious Freedom Become Unhealthful?

right-way-wrong-way1by Trevor Brookins
The idea of following one’s conscience gets lots of traction when dealing with issues around sexual identity and orientation. Less publicized but probably more frequent are the times when religious liberty faces off against medical realities.
There is a woman in Idaho who grew up with parents who believed that health problems could and would be addressed by faith in God. Mariah Walton was born with a defective heart and lung that could have been successfully treated in infancy and early childhood had her parents chosen modern medicine. Unfortunately for Mariah they did not, and so she is now a permanently disabled 20 year old.
This is where religious liberty becomes a problematic concept. It is one thing to decide to worship a certain way, or to privilege one concept of heaven over another. It is a different thing to ignore the official opinions of medical professionals regarding what is the best course of action. People in the former group are not imperiling their lives or the lives of others; people in the latter group could be committing assault via negligence. Generally speaking, the government frowns upon people not attempting to stay healthy and contribute to society. This is how President Bill Clinton passed welfare reform in the 1990s, and it is why universal healthcare has been established today.
In fact, the Walton ordeal is similar to the debate on assisted suicide, which the government criminalizes. In both cases someone’s health is not being positively effected. The difference with euthanasia is that the person in question is making the decision and is usually not in a position to contribute to society any longer. On the other hand, people in a situation similar to Walton had the decision made for them by others and were prevented from ever being in a position to contribute positively to society. The fact that a person’s choice is being taken from them is what’s important; it’s why one should be permissible and the other should not.
I mostly support religious liberty until it begins affecting others in a negative way. The government has drawn a similar line in the sand, hence prohibitions against discriminatory practices against homosexuals. But if religious liberty applies to Mariah Walton’s parents and they can cause her physical harm, then bigamy should also be legal because of religious liberty; the government, however, disallows it. This isn’t about morality. It’s about consistency on the part of our national and statewide lawmakers.
Ideally, everyone would exhaust all possibilities when faced with a health challenge to one of their children. But when that is not the case, people should be compelled by law. Religious liberty should not trump a common good like public health.
Mariah Walton would like her parents to be prosecuted. But even if that doesn’t happen, steps should be taken to prevent this from happening again.
Trevor Brookins is a freelance writer and Rockland County resident whose work can be read on, where this article was first publshied. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @HistoricTrev.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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