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Eye On Boise

Lawmakers to gather this week to consider faith-healing and children at risk, state worker benefits, foster care system

Three legislative interim committees or working groups are holding their first meetings this week, with the most controversial one, on faith healing and children at risk, set for Thursday at 9 a.m.

Over the weekend, Idaho Statesman reporter Bill Dentzer dug into the history of Idaho’s faith-healing exemption, which protects parents from criminal charges of child abuse or neglect, injury to a child, or even manslaughter or murder, in cases in which children die after being denied medical care by their parents on religious grounds. Dentzer reports that the last arrest in Idaho for failing to provide medical treatment in a case in which a child died was in 1915.

Idaho’s current exemptions were amended and strengthened in the 1970s, Dentzer reports. He also reports that a 1974 federal law included a provision, reportedly added by Nixon White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, both Christian Scientists, requiring states to enact faith-healing exemptions to receive federal funds for anti-child abuse programs. That prompted three Idaho law changes in 1976 and 1977. The federal government eliminated the requirement in 1983, and many states followed suit; Oregon eliminated its faith-healing exemption in 2011. Idaho is now one of just six states with a far-reaching faith-healing exemption that protects parents even in cases where their children die easily preventable deaths.

Tonight at the Idaho Civility Summit, featured speaker Brent Hill, president pro-tem of the Idaho Senate, was asked how lawmakers will handle that highly charged issue this year. “It’s going to be an emotional drain,” he said. He said members of a religious group called the Followers of Christ – a member of which was the one arrested in 1915, and which is now the focus of much of the concern about Idaho children dying for lack of medical care – are “sincere people, they’re honest people, they love their children … and yet we have documented cases where even the basic medical procedures would have saved children’s lives or prevented them from having serious handicaps all their lives.”

“This is an issue that deals with parental rights as well as religious freedom, and dealing with child protection as well,” Hill said. “It’s not one I’m looking forward to.” Hill said he has faith in the panel members, including Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, whom he appointed as the Senate co-chair of the interim panel. Crafting the right solution will be challenging, he said; Johnson has met with members of the group and they’ve agreed to participate. “I don’t know how we’re going to write the statute, but we’re going to give it a try,” Hill said.

Dentzer’s full report, from Sunday’s Statesman, is online here.

Here are the other interim legislative meetings scheduled this week:

- On Wednesday, an interim study committee on state employee group insurance and benefits will meet from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

- On Friday, an interim study committee on Idaho’s foster care laws will meet starting at 9 a.m.

All three meetings will take place in Room EW 42 on the lower level of the state Capitol, and will be streamed live online here.

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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