A divided Senate committee Monday narrowly approved a bill that seeks to address the state’s controversial faith-healing exemptions in cases of medical neglect of children, approving a measure that even its supporters suggested was weak.
Current Idaho law has religious exemptions in both civil and criminal statutes. The bill somewhat strengthens the link to existing child-protection statutes that permit authorities to intervene when they learn of a child who is not not getting life-saving medical care. But it leaves untouched religious exemptions in state criminal law if a child dies from lack of care.
Bill sponsor Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, who co-chaired an intersession legislative working group that reviewed the issue last year, acknowledged as much before the Senate State Affairs committee, telling members: “I’m not sure it really changes a whole lot.”
The committee approved the bill 5-4 after more than an hour of testimony and discussion.
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Johnson’s bill drew opposition from all sides of the debate. Child protection advocates and law enforcement representatives said it would not prevent deaths of children when their parents chose prayer over medicine. Parental rights advocates also objected, as did lawmakers who thought the measure was vague or ineffective.
“Right now, a child’s right to live ends at birth,” said Linda Martin, who was raised in the faith-healing Followers of Christ sect and has pressed for the repeal of Idaho’s exemptions.
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue said the county has had three deaths of children from apparent medical neglect in the past four months, including one Sunday that is under investigation.
“In these cases we don’t even get word that there’s neglect typically until the child has died,” he said.
Nathan Kangas, a member of the Followers church, stressed that use of medicine is against the group’s faith and “does impact our eternity.” Even people who depend on medicine return to faith and prayer when all medical efforts are exhausted, he said, leaving matters “up to God.”
“It was up to God in the first place,” he said.
Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said the Senate was “looking for partial solution that could also have a chance of passing. This is that bill.”
“It may not be the perfect step forward for every person in this room but it is a step that provides for government involvement when it is aware (of neglect),” he said. “That is the weakness of the legislation. I admit it.”
Committee members debating the bill referred frequently to their own personal experiences with faith or their religious beliefs. Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, who has many Followers as constituents and friends and has been an advocate for their concerns, credited the power of faith in her own recovery from illness two years ago.
“I believe in medical intervention, but I also believe in prayer,” she said. She opposed the bill, saying the legislation needed more work.
Committee Chairman Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, who was the tiebreaking vote to move the bill on to the full Senate, gave a passionate description of his own faith.
“I certainly believe in divinity and I think that our Lord Jesus Christ can intervene,” he said. “I’m sure many in this room have witnessed miracles. Those children that have gone on, they’re probably where we’re all trying to get. They’re there. They’ve got it made. If we can just live a righteous life, one day we’ll be with them again. But I think this bill comes as close as we can come right now in trying to intervene.”