Brookins Head Shot*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 about what is the best course of action. People in the former group are not imperiling their lives or the lives of others while 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 Clinton passed welfare reform in the 1990s and why universal healthcare has been established today.

In fact the ordeal of Walton is similar to the debate on assisted suicide which the government criminalizes. In both cases someone’s health is not being positively affected. The difference is with euthanasia the person in question is making the decision for them 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 all important in 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 yet the government disallows it. This isn’t about morality but 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 free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.