March 2018 Church & State - March 2018

Idaho Laws Lax In Preventing Child Deaths From Faith Healing

  Idaho Laws Lax In Preventing Child Deaths From Faith Healing

Idaho has the strongest protections for faith healers in the western United States, and is one of just six states that shields faith-healing parents from felony charges when their children die of treatable illnesses – a situation some in the state would like to change.

According to a recent report by Colorado-based High Country News, efforts to change the law are meeting with resistance.

Reporter Leah Sottile wrote that faith healing is prominent among members of the Followers of Christ, a Christian sect concentrated in Idaho that doesn’t believe in modern medicine. She reported that at least 20 children of sect members in southern Idaho died of treatable ailments like fevers or food poisoning in a 10-year period. Also of concern are stillborn babies delivered by women who never sought prenatal care.

In one Idaho cemetery owned by the sect, Sottile found that 35 percent of the burials from 2002 to 2013 were for children or stillborn babies.

Idaho legislators have proposed bills as recently as last year to modify the decades-old laws that protect faith healers, but those efforts so far haven’t been successful. During debate in 2017, Sen. Lee Heider (R-Twin Falls) said Idaho shouldn’t be “in the practice of taking away the constitutional rights of a small few in the name of goodness, correctness, medical appropriateness,” according to Sottile’s report.

In 2015, Idaho legislators reinforced the state’s permissive faith-healing laws by passing a “parental rights” bill that ensured parents “have a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, education and control of their children,” according to High Country News.

Sottile noted the debate in Idaho is occurring amidst the national push by President Donald Trump and Religious Right leaders to redefine religious freedom in ways that could negatively impact people’s health.

“I think an argument that we don’t want to open the floodgates to scrutinizing religions misses the point. No one questions the right of faith healers to believe in faith healing,” Shaakirah Sanders, an associate professor of law at the University of Idaho, told Sottile. “This is really about minors – individuals who don’t have the capacity to make decisions for themselves.”

State Sen. Grant Burgoyne (D-Boise) told High Country News he will introduce a bill to protect children better. And state Rep. John Gannon (D-Boise) said he will re-introduce his 2014 bill that would allow faith-healers to be prosecuted: “I continue to support my bill to require parents to get medical care when a child’s condition may result in permanent injury or death,” Gannon said.

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