Idaho’s effort to balance parents’ rights, children’s lives and the state’s zealous commitment to religious freedom in one bill to tweak the state’s faith-healing legal exemptions died in the Senate Tuesday, mustering support from less than one-third of the body.
The 11-24 vote, after 90 minutes of floor debate, came after opponents from all quarters attacked a bill that even supporters said did little to change the legal status quo, and whose main argument for passage seemed to be that it might win support in the sharply divided Senate.
But the watered-down bill, which slipped through Senate committee Monday by just one vote, left much to be desired, or disliked, from all sides. Its sound rejection signaled the failure of a years-long effort to address child deaths from medical neglect in Idaho, an effort capped last year by a legislative committee that sought to rewrite state law or find some other resolution.
Idaho’s civil and criminal statutes have exemptions for faith-healing in cases of medical neglect of children that date from the early 1970s. The bill before the Senate sought only minor changes to the civil statute, strengthening a link to existing child-protection laws that allow authorities to intervene when they learn of a child who is not getting life-saving medical care.
I think a change to the criminal law is in order.
Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, in voting no
But it did not address faith-healing exemptions from charges of manslaughter or murder in state criminal law, prompting child protection advocates and many law enforcement groups to oppose it outright. Some opposing senators cited those arguments Tuesday.
“If all that is at stake legally is civil petition for medical treatment, will any behavior be changed by this bill?” said Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. “I think a change to the criminal law is in order because that presents the opportunity for deterrence.”
The bill also drew opposition from senators with a strong commitment to religious freedom, who said otherwise dutiful and caring parents should not be punished for seeking whatever treatment they prefer for their children, including prayer.
“We have to protect those rights from those who would take them away, and I believe this bill is a taking,” said Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls.
More than a dozen senators debated, some more than once, and some rose to explain their vote. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said she would vote no “not because I want to criminalize parents. I want to save lives and I want to save the lives of those who have no voice for themselves, and this bill doesn’t get there for me.”
This body is reluctant to punish people criminally for a firmly held religious belief.
Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, arguing for passage
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, in arguing for passage, said a bill that removes the exemption in the criminal statute would never pass.
“It won’t,” he said, “because this body is reluctant to punish people criminally for a firmly held religious belief.”
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, who chaired the Legislature’s faith-healing working group last summer. He opened floor debate with a lengthy discussion of how the state’s exemptions came into being.
Some 90 minutes later, he closed it by asking for a moment of silence.