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Eye On Boise

Otter hopeful that lawmakers will convene working group to look into faith healing exemption, child deaths

As Idaho’s controversial faith healing exemption from prosecution for child deaths or medical neglect gained national attention on the “Today” show today, Gov. Butch Otter said he hopes legislative leaders will heed his call to form a working group to look into the issue this summer. “I hope they will, so that we have a clearer path forward,” Otter said. “I was sincere in my request. They were sincere in their initial response. I suspect that we will have such an interim group that’s going to look into it.” Then, he said, “We’ll know a lot more next legislative session.”

The issue has 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.

In February, 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. 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."

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 fundamentalist parents’ reliance on prayer to treat a congenital heart problem when she was an infant; her story was featured on the “Today” show this morning.

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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