Several proposals are being discussed at the Capitol to change Idaho’s law that exempts from prosecution parents who believe in faith healing if their children get sick or die.
Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, received a letter Friday from Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, who co-chaired the Children at Risk-Faith Healing Work Group that studied the issue last year, outlining five options.
The goal is “not to punish the parents but to protect the children,” Hill said.
Johnson’s seven-page letter, co-signed by senators who served on the work group, outlines options ranging from doing nothing to modifying or removing exemptions or adding reporting requirements. One option would remove the exemptions and rely on the state’s Free Exercise of Religion Act, passed in 2000, for guidance on enforcement. The move would leave to state courts the job of determining parental rights and responsibilities on a case-by-case basis. That is essentially what is in effect now.
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Finding the right balance “between protecting children and honoring a parent’s free exercise of religion is challenging,” Johnson wrote, adding that “religious beliefs and practices should continue to be recognized as methods of treatment in health care choices in Idaho.”
The charge of the working group, and the point of his letter, Johnson said Friday, was not to make a definitive recommendation.
“We’re just trying to lay out potential actions that the Senate can take,” he said.
Hill said the Senate leadership would meet Wednesday to discuss the possibilities. One would be to leave the law as it is. Another would be to expand reporting requirements for people such as educators, social workers and medical professionals.
“There’s already a mechanism in there to protect the children if they have knowledge of what’s going on,” Hill said.
Another possibility is a bill being written by Sen. Dan Foreman, R-Moscow, to lift the exemption in cases where a parent or guardian knew, should have known or was advised by a doctor that their child had a medical condition likely to result in death.
“What I’m trying to do is come up with a compromise bill,” Foreman said.
Foreman said he doesn’t want to interfere with anyone’s religious practices, but believes the state should step in if someone might die. He thinks his proposal has “at least a fair chance” of getting an introductory hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee.
While most states provide some legal leeway to parents who have religious objections to conventional medicine, Idaho is one of the few that doesn’t prosecute them if their children die when the deaths likely could have been prevented by medical treatment.
Southwestern Idaho is home to a number of congregations of the Followers of Christ, who reject medical care in favor New Testament-inspired treatments such as prayer, wine and anointing with oil. Some of them also live in Oregon, which amended its laws to remove a similar exemption in 2011, and the political controversy spread to Idaho shortly thereafter when reporting showed a higher-than-normal number of child deaths among members of the group, many from preventable causes. Documented cases show children dying who likely wouldn’t have if they had seen a doctor, mostly in Canyon County.
Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, has pushed legislation for the past few sessions to change the law, but has been unable to get an introductory hearing, with many Republicans saying they don’t want to infringe on religious freedoms.
Gannon has two proposals. One adds a line saying the exemption doesn’t apply in cases where a child is at imminent risk of death or permanent physical harm. The other would repeal the existing exemption. Both versions add a line specifying that not vaccinating a child won’t be considered a violation of the law.
“I am shopping them around,” Gannon said. “There has to be the will here to do something before it gets printed.”
Lawmakers would seek to balance “protecting religious rights and freedoms while protecting children that could be at risk,” Hill said. “That’s a sensitive line to walk.”