State Politics

Idaho lawmakers finish faith-healing review, won’t make recommendations

Faith healing review concludes

Idaho lawmakers concluded their inter-session review of the state's faith-healing legal exemptions. The panel will make no recommendation to the full legislature.
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Idaho lawmakers concluded their inter-session review of the state's faith-healing legal exemptions. The panel will make no recommendation to the full legislature.

State lawmakers reviewing Idaho’s faith-based legal exemptions amid cases of children who died from apparent medical neglect concluded their work Monday saying they won’t make any recommendation or submit a report to the full Legislature.

A legislative review ended with a 2.5-hour public hearing that veered away from discussion of faith-healing sects that rely on prayer to treat the sick, and into a broader discussion of parental rights to choose medical treatment for their children.

We do not neglect our children. We love our children. We take care of them.

Followers of Christ member Nathan Kangas

At issue is whether Idaho’s protections regarding faith-healing practices have permitted children to die when their caregivers chose prayer over medicine and declined to seek a doctor’s care. A governor-appointed panel has identified 10 such possible deaths over a three-year period. Gov. Butch Otter asked legislative leaders in February to study the issue.

“We’ve done everything that the working group was asked to do,” Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, one of the panel’s co-chairs, said at the end of Monday’s hearing. “We won’t be recommending any legislation. We were never assigned to come up with a piece of legislation. We were assigned as a working group to come and learn more.”

This law, as you can see today, has not created a level playing field.

Former Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg

Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, the other co-chair, said lawmakers had gone “as far as the committee’s going to take it” and that discussions “are going to continue on between now and January,” when the next session starts.

More than 40 people testified Monday, including current and former members of faith-healing groups, doctors and other medical professionals, and a large contingent representing the group Health Freedom Idaho, which advocates for unfettered freedom of health care choice and opposes health requirements such as mandatory vaccinations. Their testimony moved discussion away from whether current exemptions in Idaho’s criminal and civil law essentially grant immunity from prosecution to practitioners of faith-based healing if they withhold medical care in favor of prayer.

“I am not a member of a faith-based healing group,” said Alexa Beikmann, who said she takes her children to the doctor regularly. “I keep hearing you speak of medical neglect. These people are dutiful parents making a conscious decision on what kind of treatment they’re going to provide for their children. That is not neglect.”

Nathan Kangas, a member of the Followers of Christ church, which practices faith-healing, said the church considers drugs and medication a form of witchcraft. Forcing it on them “would deprive us and our children of eternal life,” he said.

“We do not neglect our children. We love our children. We take care of them,” Kangas said.

Kirtlan Naylor, a Boise lawyer who chaired the governor’s task force that urged the review of faith-healing exemptions, said removing the exemptions would not affect religious freedom and would save lives.

“Society has established consequences when our choices affect another person’s right to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness,” he said.

Former Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg said he had investigated countless cases of children who died from neglect. Current law creates a double standard, he said, where some accused of abuse or neglect are exempted from prosecution because of their religious beliefs.

“This law, as you can see today, has not created a level playing field,” Sonnenberg said. “I know that the people of faith healing, they love their children just as we love ours. ... But I have seen cases of similar situations that have gone to prosecutors, and prosecutors will prosecute one and decline another.”

Bill Dentzer: 208-377-6438, @IDSBillD

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