Faith healing in state lawmakers' scope

BOISE, Idaho - The debate over legal protections of faith healing in Idaho has catapulted to the national and even international stage, and that's causing state lawmakers to give the matter another look.

Faith healing stems from the belief that prayer alone can treat an illness. Practitioners are often suspicious of medical intervention. Health officials say the results in Idaho are too often preventable deaths -- especially of young children.

Some religious sub-groups in Idaho are now under the microscope for their faith-healing practices.

20-year-old Mariah Walton has become the poster child for the issue. An untreated heart condition as a child has destroyed her lungs. She was too ill to talk to 6 On Your Side, but her sister Emily has stood by her side in the fight for change.

"Of course I want to see the law change because I know it will save children's lives,” said Walton. “But this really should have been done a couple years ago."

Faith healing is not a new controversy in the state. In 2015, a task force for Governor Otter found one religious community in Canyon County had a child mortality rate or 31 percent - ten times the state average.

Idaho statute specifically protects criminal child abuse if inaction is the result of religious beliefs. It reads: “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 have violated the duty of care to such child.”

It's a step too far for Walton.

"In America we have all sorts of things that impinge on many different ideas people might have about their religion and simply letting a child die infringes on their freedom to live. We have to draw a line somewhere and probably death is one of those lines."

Idaho is one of only 6 states with these religious protections. With new national attention on the matter lawmakers in the Republican leadership are contemplating if it is something to take up.

"This is not an easy issue by any stretch of the imagination,” said House Assistant Majority Leader brent Crane. “It's a very difficult issue to deal with."

Crane, R-Nampa, sees the issue pitting two fundamental rights against each other. He says on the one hand you have the first amendment right of religious practice. On the other side of that argument, “does someone have the right to use their religion as a shield potentially that would endanger a child?" poses Crane.

The complex and delicate nature of the issue has lawmakers stepping lightly. However, Crane says those steps are happening.

It's the informal conversations happening now that are laying the groundwork for next year's legislative session. Governor Otter has asked House Speaker Scott Bedke to form a working group this summer to investigate faith healing protections. No word yet from the Speaker if he will call such a group together.

Walton is part of a campaign from a non-profit Protect Idaho Kids aimed to end faith healing protections. You can learn more about them here.

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