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Eye On Boise

Idaho’s faith-healing exemption for child deaths draws international attention

The Guardian has published a lengthy story today about Idaho’s faith-healing exemption from prosecution for child deaths, an issue that’s come up repeatedly in the Idaho Legislature since 2014 but not received a hearing. Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, proposed legislation this year to change the law in the wake of the deaths of numerous children of members of the Followers of Christ group in southwestern Idaho from treatable conditions, including pneumonia and food poisoning; many children are buried at a cemetery overlooking the Snake River.

The Guardian’s article, headlined “Letting them die: Parents refuse medical help for children in the name of Christ,” is online here. Senate Health & Welfare Committee Chairman Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, earlier told Gannon his panel would hold a hearing on the bill this year, but he never scheduled one. In March, Heider told reporters he and his wife had visited with the Followers of Christ and were impressed by them. “I’m a First Amendment guy, and I believe in the First Amendment which gives people the freedom of religion,” Heider said then. “I don’t think there’s any desire in my committee to move it forward.”

The Guardian reports that Idaho is one of only six states that offer a faith-based shield for felony crimes such as manslaughter.

In February, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter released a letter he’d written to legislative leadership asking for attention - including convening a legislative work group - on protection of children in the face of religious exemptions from medical care. “How we can protect the children, which we can assume the state responsibility for any citizen and especially children, but at the same time respect the religious tendencies that folks may have against medical attention?” he asked. “At what point does that become child neglect and abuse? It is a question that I can’t answer, the legal eagles can’t answer.”

At this point, no legislative work group has been formed, but Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill said he and House Speaker Scott Bedke will consider that work group plus another, on health care, between now and the June 17 Legislative Council meeting, at which legislative interim committee members will be named.

In his February letter to legislative leaders, Otter noted that he issued an executive order in 2012 forming the Idaho Child Fatality Review Team under his Governor's Task Force on Children at Risk. The team reported its findings last April, he wrote, "including an analysis of two deaths related to refusal of medical care because of religious or personal beliefs. However, interest in the issue has grown in the past few months and further review may be needed."

"I believe we must give this issue a thorough examination," Otter wrote. "I am therefore asking that you consider convening a legislative workgroup to assess the Child Fatality Review Team's report along with other sources of research and testimony regarding this policy issue."

Hill said, “I haven’t personally talked to the speaker about the governor’s letter. I certainly see some value in doing it, but I don’t want to speak on his behalf.”

This year, advocates were calling the bill “Mariah’s Law,” after a young Idaho woman, Mariah Walton, now 20, who’s suffered serious and life-threatening health problems due to her parents’ failure to treat a congenital heart problem when she was an infant; she’s featured in the Guardian story.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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