Idaho Press Tribune
If a child is found to be living in a squalid home, with 30 dogs roaming around, feces covering the floor and litter strewn throughout, Child Protective Services has the legal authority to remove the children from the parents’ custody.
The children don’t even need to be sick. Just the unhealthy living environment is enough.
Yet if parents refuse to take a sick child to a doctor for life-saving medical treatment based on religious reasons, the state is powerless to do anything about it. The child can die — and it has already happened.
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There’s something terribly wrong with this picture.
The good news is that Twin Falls Republican Sen. Lee Heider says he would “be happy to hear” a bill that would challenge Idaho’s exemptions for faith healers whose children are injured or die from ailments that could be medically treated.
The bad news is such legislation would curtail some religious rights and broaden government power, and those concepts are about as popular in the Idaho Legislature as Hummers would be at an environmentalists’ rally.
In 2014, Boise Democrat Rep. John Gannon couldn’t even get a hearing on a bill he wrote that would address this problem. His bill made a slight modification to Idaho Code that already states “Any person who, under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death, willfully causes or permits any child to suffer, or inflicts thereon unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering, or having the care or custody of any child, willfully causes or permits the person or health of such child to be injured, or willfully causes or permits such child to be placed in such situation that its person or health is endangered, is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year, or in the state prison for not less than one year nor more than 10 years.”
Gannon’s modification added something to the section of the law which begins. “The practice of a parent or guardian who chooses for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to have violated the duty of care to such child.” His bill added this sentence: “However, this exemption shall not apply whenever a child’s medical condition has caused death or permanent disability.”
Good law isn’t just about intent. There are a lot of poorly worded bills — some of which became laws — which are very well intended but not written well enough to earn passage or withstand legal challenge.
Nobody wants children to die. But speaking of poorly-worded legislation, Idaho lawmakers last year passed into law a bill that boldly declared that Idaho parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit.
Legislators also refused to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state’s human rights protections, largely for religious reasons.
So will such lawmakers be willing to cut into Idahoans’ religious freedom when it comes to how to treat their sick kids? It won’t be an easy sell.
The necessary expansion of government power also will alarm some legislators. If a child has a known, treatable ailment for weeks and then dies, application of a proposed change to the law is obvious. But sometimes kids have what looks to be a relatively minor problem, and within a few days they die tragically, unexpectedly. If the parents were religious, do they run the risk of being hauled off to jail for an innocent mistake?
It might sound silly, but this is the Idaho Legislature, folks. You know arguments like that are going to be made by someone, and advocates of legislation that would remove faith healing exemptions better be prepared. Attempts to punish negligent parents who are also deeply religious will leave room for interpretation, and that will make even less ideologically-driven people nervous.
Legal adults 18 years of age or older should be able to decide whether prayer alone is adequate medication for themselves. But minors deserve special protection, and Idahoans shouldn’t be left to watch in futility as they die of treatable ailments.
Religious freedom has reasonable limits. This should be one of them. Let’s hope conservative state legislators can figure out a way to draft legislation that draws a balanced line between religious freedom and protecting innocent children.