Faith-healing bill would make it easier for courts to get involved

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BOISE — A new faith-healing bill was introduced in the state Senate Wednesday that would make it easier for courts to intervene when the child of parents who cite religious reasons for medical decisions is sick or dying.

The bill would not remove the most controversial part of Idaho’s law, which exempts those parents from being charged with a crime.

Sen. Dan Johnson’s proposal would strike a line from the law that defines neglect that says treatment through prayer or spiritual means alone cannot be considered neglect, opening the possibility that a court could act in these cases.

It would add language to the law stating Idaho’s commitment to religious freedom and saying the state should not “substantially burden” this and will get involved in deeming faith healing to be neglect only in cases where “the failure to receive medical treatment is likely to result in serious permanent injury or death.” The bill also says the child’s wishes should be considered.

The intent of the bill, said Johnson, a Republican from Lewiston, is to protect children without turning parents into criminals because of their religion.

“This is going to require a little more action,” he told reporters after the hearing.

Another proposal introduced Wednesday does almost the opposite.

Just before Johnson introduced his bill, Dan Sevy, a member of the Followers of Christ Church that has been at the center of the debate over whether to change the law, introduced a bill of his own.

The bill would add to the state’s law on authorizing emergency medical treatment a line saying courts will consider whether a child is being treated by any other type of alternative medicine, like faith healing, before ordering emergency medical treatment. That law already instructs the court to consider whether a family believes in faith healing in making such a determination, and Sevy’s bill would leave that intact.

Non-lawmakers like Sevy are on rare occasions allowed to carry bills in the Statehouse.

Johnson was co-chairman of a group of lawmakers who studied the issue last year. Johnson and the other senators who were part of the group sent Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, a letter in February outlining possible changes to the law. Sevy, a Caldwell man who had two young sons die of pneumonia after he refused medical treatment for them, testified in front of the working group over the summer in favor of keeping religious protections and has met with lawmakers to discuss the issue.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to print both Johnson’s and Sevy’s bills, clearing the way for a full hearing later. Hill, who is on the committee, praised Johnson, the other lawmakers and Sevy who have been working on the issue.

“It’s not easy to find just the right words to cover every single circumstance,” Johnson said.

Most states allow some legal latitude to parents who don’t believe in conventional medicine for religious reasons, but Idaho is one of the few that shields them from being charged with a crime in cases where a child dies as a result. Oregon changed its exemption laws in 2011 in response to child deaths among the Followers of Christ, who practice prayer and treatments such as anointing with oil in lieu of doctors and conventional medication. Faith healing became a political issue here a few years later, as some members of that church also live in Idaho and media started to report on the higher-than-normal number of child deaths among the Followers in the state.

Boise Democrat John Gannon has brought bills over the past few sessions to get rid of the exemption in the criminal code but has been unable to get a hearing, with many Republican lawmakers viewing this as infringing upon religious freedom.

“It’s a little progress and I support it, but it’s not going to solve the problem,” Gannon said of Johnson’s bill. “It’s still unfair that all the rest of us have to live under the injury to child statute while a very small minority does not.”

Linda Martin, who grew up in a Followers of Christ family in Idaho, has been lobbying lawmakers, media and others for the past few years to try to bring attention to the issue and change the law and gathering information on children, including some of her relatives, who have died because of lack of treatment. Martin said she is unhappy with the way the working group operated, saying her requests for meetings with members of the working group were rebuffed even though they had apparently been working with Sevy.

“I’m a little upset about the whole thing because in my opinion it’s discrimination,” she said.

Martin doesn’t think the bill will help.

“Most of these children are not seen by anybody outside of the family or church until it’s too late and they are dead,” she said. “The only way is to make all parents accountable, not give a special privilege to any religious sect.”

The Legislature is aiming to wrap up for the year at the end of next week, so if anything is going to make it through both chambers and become law, the Senate committee will have to move fast.

“I think we’re trying to get them on there just as quickly as we can,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton.

Siddoway said he wasn’t sure if both bills would get a hearing. One possibility, he said, would be to hold hearings on both on the same day.

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