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Idaho Senate kills bill to repeal exemption on faith-healing parents who decline treatment of their children

Sen. Dan Foreman, R-Moscow, debates on the faith-healing bill in the Idaho Senate on Tuesday, March 21, 2017. The bill died, 11-24; Foreman supported it. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)

BOISE – After two hours of passionate debate Tuesday, the Idaho Senate rejected a proposal allowing faith-healing parents to be civilly liable when their children die or suffer permanent injury due to a lack of treatment.

The bill proposed a series of changes to Idaho’s existing faith-healing exemption from civil liability for child neglect, but made no changes in the state’s criminal laws, which include a religious exemption from prosecution for faith-healing parents.

Some argued that the bill violated the freedom of religion, but some rejected the bill because they did not feel it went far enough.

“My vote will be no,” Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said. “But it’s not because I want to criminalize parents. I want to save lives. And I want to save the lives of those who have no voice for themselves. This bill doesn’t get there for me.”

But Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, told the Senate, “I think it is fundamentally wrong to criminalize people for the free exercise of religion.”

Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, noted that the bill inserts references to Idaho’s existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act, citing rights to free exercise of religion. The bill also would have revised the civil exemption from applying to parents who treat their children by “prayer alone” to those who rely on prayer “alone or in part.” And would have directed 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, without specifying the age at which a child’s wishes should be considered.

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said the bill “muddies parental rights” and contains vague provisions.

“People of faith, the medical community, law enforcement, not to mention many parents, are very much against this bill,” Stennett told the Senate. “I understand what the senator’s trying to do here. He did not succeed.”

Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, said the state should “not in the practice of taking away the constitutional rights of a small few in the name of goodness, correctness, medical appropriateness , you name it.”

“I feel this bill is a taking of a right.” said Heider, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee chairman.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, supported the bill “a small step” in the right direction since a bill that allowed criminal prosecution of a faith-healing parent is unlikely to win support.

“Do you think that bill is going to pass?” he asked the Senate. “It won’t. Because this floor is reluctant to punish people criminally for a firmly held religious belief.”

Sen. Dan Foreman, R-Moscow, said he believed the state is obligated to act.

“This definitely is a troubling issue. We’ve heard good arguments on both sides. We’re talking about religious freedom, which is one of the cornerstones of American life, and we’re on the verge of altering that to some degree.”

But, he said, “All of your other rights mean nothing if you’re not alive. And we’re dealing here with an issue that involves minors, children, some of whom cannot make life and death decisions.”

Gov. Butch Otter asked legislative leaders to form a special committee to look into the issue last summer, after legislation was proposed unsuccessfully for the past few years to lift or amend Idaho’s religious exemptions. The panel held hearings over the summer.

Then, Johnson, who co-chaired the panel, proposed the bill.

In August, the Idaho Child Fatality Review Team published its third annual report, this one reviewing child deaths in 2013, and it found that five Idaho children died that year because their parents’ religious beliefs prevented them from seeking medical treatment. That brought the total over three years of reviews to 10 Idaho children, although the report noted that not all such deaths are reported.

Idaho is one of just seven states with a faith-healing exemption from its manslaughter laws, according to data submitted to the interim legislative panel by legislative staffers. Many more states have faith-healing exemptions from civil liability for abuse, neglect or failure to report; smaller numbers have exemptions from misdemeanor or felony criminal charges for non-support, neglect or injury to a child. Idaho has exemptions in all four areas. Only one other state, Virginia, has all four exemptions.

Washington has religious exemptions from both civil liability and felony charges of child neglect, but not misdemeanor neglect charges or manslaughter.

A faith-healing sect called the Followers of Christ has a large community in southern Idaho. There, a 2015 report from the Governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk calculated a child mortality rate of 31 percent from 2002 to 2011, compared to a statewide rate of 3.37 percent.