Legislature panel punts on faith healing stand

Lewiston Tribune

As lawmakers geared up to critique the way Idaho allows faith-healing parents to deny life-saving medical care to their children, you could almost hear the jaded cynics react:

Oh, these politicians may put on a show, hold a public hearing or two and take testimony. But they won't change the law. Not in a state where challenging religion — even a fringe cult — requires at least an ounce or two of courage.

But as the legislative task force hearings unfolded and the evidence mounted, you had to wonder how the cynics could be so confident.

Idaho is one of only seven states with a faith-healing exemption. But you have to travel to Virginia to find another state with a loophole as wide and as deep as the one on the books in the Gem State. The law not only blocks criminal prosecutions but child protection actions as well.

So said Mary Jo Beig, who has experience in child protection issues with the attorney general's office: “The religious exemption is the only place in the child protective act that places the parent's right before the child.”

The double standard that excuses child abuse and neglect on religious grounds had been tied to 10 deaths in the three years that ended in 2013. And in a Canyon County graveyard used by members of the Followers of Christ, 40 graves are occupied by children — reflecting a child mortality rate of 31 percent. Idaho's statewide rate is 3.37 percent.

Such facts had been periodically reported in scattered media accounts, but never before had this information been presented in a formal, legislative tribunal for the world to witness.

On one hand, you saw medical and legal professionals beseeching lawmakers to use the law to protect innocent children from their parents.

You heard people ask how any law could elevate the beliefs of parents before the rights of their children to live?

“What does it say about Idaho, giving a free pass to a small religious minority in cases of manslaughter or criminal neglect of children?” asked Brian Hoyt, who grew up in a faith-healing sect.

On the other was a parade of people who called medicine “sorcery” and “witchcraft.” Alongside them were those who believed it was all or nothing: If government could compel parents to treat a dying child's pneumonia, the day would not be far off when that same government could insist that every child get immunized for measles and the mumps.

After all that, how could 10 lawmakers not be compelled to act?

Replied the cynics: Aren't these the same people who have refused to extend Medicaid to 78,000 low-income Idahoans who are dying prematurely for lack of health care?

Isn't this the same Legislature that tolerates state laws that permit overt discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity?

You expect them to show some backbone when it comes to the plight of vulnerable children?

Guess what? The cynics were right. The task force members picked up their papers and walked away.

“We've done everything that the working group was asked to do,” says Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian and co-chairman of the panel. “We won't be recommending 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.”

Want to prove the cynics wrong?

Two of north central Idaho's lawmakers sat on that panel — Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, who served as Palmer's co-chairman, and Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow.

Nothing's stopping them from writing their own bills. In fact, Johnson told the Idaho Statesman's Bill Dentzer that discussions “are going to continue on between now and January.”

You might call them.