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Idaho panelists urge the legislature to repeal faith-healing exemptions from state stature

Photo courtesy of Aspen Jarvis

A group of panelists met to discuss upcoming legislation on Idaho’s faith-healing religious exemptions on Wednesday, Jan. 12.

The event, sponsored by the Campaign to Protect Idaho Kids, called for the Idaho Legislature to either limit or repeal a faith-healing religious exemption in the state.

Currently, Idaho is one of the few states that protects parents from civil and criminal prosecution who choose to deny medical care to their children on religious grounds. 

Amended in 1972 to include religious exemptions, the section of Idaho law in question is found under Title 18 and is titled “Abandonment of Nonsupport of Wife or Children” (18-401). The Idaho Statute states that “the practice of a parent or guardian who chooses for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to be a violation of the duty of care to such child.”

[Photo of Campaign to Protect Idaho Kids supporters demonstrating at the capitol]
Photo courtesy of Aspen Jarvis

The speakers on the panel clearly stated that their intentions were not to criminalize faith-healing or religious practices, but rather “remove the exemption when it applies to denying life-saving care or medicine,” according to Idaho Capital Sun.

As attendance at the State Capitol was limited due to the recent surge in the omicron variant, the event was live-streamed on the Idaho Public Television website for those who could not attend personally. Additionally, few panelists joined the conversation remotely over Zoom.

Three of the audience members held up signs in protest of the proposed change in legislation, some reading, “The answer to COVID-1984 is liberty 1776,” and “My child’s body, her choice. Our family’s choice.”

Mark Johnson, former KTVB news anchor and moderator at the event, responded by emphasizing that topics discussed during the panel would be unrelated to COVID-19 vaccinations, as those were examples of preventive care unrelated to the statute in question.

Johnson explained that the goal of the panel was to “protect Idaho kids regardless of the beliefs of their family” and would not serve as a precedent to remove other religious freedoms from Idaho law.

“If you said, well it was because of my faith, then you could starve your kid,” said Jim Jones, former chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court and state attorney general.

Jones attended the event as a panelist and prefaced his argument by explaining that the only reason faith-healing exemptions had been added to the statute was over risk of losing federal funding.

“It’s interesting we have about a half dozen or so laws on the books that says you cannot kill a fetus in the womb, but once the child is born, that child is on its own here in Idaho,” Jones said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

A study conducted by Boise State University professors Guido Giuntini and Corissa Wolf revealed that child mortality rates among families in the Followers of Christ Church are four times more likely to die before reaching the age of 1 than any other child in the general population.

Panelists also shared that more than 200 children in Idaho have died of preventable illness due to faith-healing practices, 90% of whom would have lived had they been treated with modern medicine.

“How many more deaths will it take?” said Linda Martin, former member of the Followers of Christ Church. “Why is Idaho still protecting these parents? Prayer alone is child abuse and neglect.”

Johnson emphasized that the propositions brought forth from the panel were not new, as similar legislation to remove faith-healing exemptions in Idaho law had been brought up in previous legislative sessions.

District 17 Rep. John Gannon drafted a bill in 2018 that would have required the practice of faith-healing to be paired with appropriate medical treatment. The bill was rejected by the Senate in an 11-24 vote.

“I don’t think religion and medicine contradict each other,” said former Clackamas County prosecutor John Foote.

According to the Campaign to Protect Idaho Kids, Foote was responsible for the removal of Oregon’s religious exemption law back in 2011.

“I believe in miracles, but you cannot neglect kids by not giving them medical care,” Foote said.

Some Idahoans raised questions on what this could mean for other religious freedoms currently being pressed for removal. However, Foote pointed out that the removal of this protection from Oregon law had not led to further changes in the state’s religious protections.

“It is an issue that continues to bubble beneath the very floors and surface of this statehouse,” Johnson said.

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