BOISE – Controversial faith-healing legislation that would change Idaho law to allow families to claim religious reasons for medical decisions without worrying about child neglect prosecution narrowly cleared an Idaho Senate committee Monday.
The vote followed a hearing in which nearly everyone who spoke opposed it.
Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, said his bill makes no changes in the state’s criminal laws, which include a religious exemption from prosecution for faith-healing parents who deny their children medical care and the children die or suffer permanent injury.
“I’m not sure that it really changes a whole lot,” said Johnson, who co-chaired a legislative interim working group that held hearings on Idaho’s existing faith-healing exemption, “other than it moves a bunch of words and sentences around.”
Johnson said his bill restates Idaho’s current religious exemption from civil liability for child abuse or neglect as an “affirmative statement,” and clarifies some wording. It also references Idaho’s existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act, citing rights to free exercise of religion. “That is a fundamental right that applies to all parenting decisions,” Johnson said. The bill makes no changes to Idaho’s criminal laws.
Among those speaking out against it was Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue, whose county includes a sect called Followers of Christ that practices faith healing. “In my county alone I’ve had three deaths in the last four months,” he told the Senate State Affairs Committee, “one yesterday, that I can’t speak of because of an open investigation. … My hands are tied as a law enforcement officer.”
Donahue said, “I’ve heard we don’t want to criminalize the parent. If the parent is criminal, we need to prosecute. … It’s an embarrassment to our state.”
Nathan Kangas, a member of the Followers of Christ, said, “We’re not exempt from the law, this is the law that they’re trying to change.” Noting the sect’s large family sizes, he said, “We have ten times the children survive than what you would call the people who practice Western medicine as a general rule. I don’t believe our children are neglected.”
He added, “There’s no way we can or will do medication because we do believe it does impact our eternity. … Faith is the base of all Christianity. And it seems odd to me here that they have now put man before God.”
Linda Martin, who grew up in the sect, said, “Free exercise of religion does not give people the right to hurt children.”
Martin said the bill “will do nothing to protect children,” saying, “This bill will allow even more Idaho parents to use prayer as an excuse for neglecting a child’s basic medical needs.”
Among the bill’s changes are a revision from applying the civil exemption to parents who treat their children by “prayer alone” to those who rely on prayer “alone or in part.” The bill also directs courts to consider the child’s wishes when determining if a child who faces permanent injury or death is being neglected when denied medical care.
“These children have the right to live,” Martin said. “Right now in Idaho, a child’s right to live ends at birth. There are laws to protect freedom of religion. Removing these statutes from the criminal and civil codes would require every person in Idaho to follow the same duty of care to a child with no exceptions.”
Bruce Wingate of the Protect Idaho Kids Foundation said Idaho infants from faith-healing families are dying during childbirth, and elementary school students with diabetes are dying because they’re refused insulin. “In the name of humanity, please repeal these laws and allow children the right to a healthy life,” he said, saying the changes in the bill “have the potential to allow for more children to die of faith healing medical neglect than do today.”
Senators on the committee spoke emotionally about their religious convictions and their concerns before passing the bill, 5-4.
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said, “We found a way to introduce a bill to offend everybody – it certainly wasn’t our target. We weren’t looking for applause. We were looking for something that could be a partial solution and also have a chance of passing, and this is that bill.”
Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, said, “For me, this puts the focus on protecting the child, not punishing the parent.”