Lawmakers prepare to discuss faith healing in upcoming legislative session

Attempts to amend code in 2017 were unsuccessful

BOISE - The controversial topic of faith healing has taken center stage at the Idaho Statehouse in recent years, and as we approach the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers are preparing for the possibility the topic will resurface once again.

"The topic is going to be here until it's resolved," Representative John Gannon said.

In 2016, an interim committee was created to research faith healing at Governor Otter's request.

The belief is practiced by a group in southwest Idaho known as The Followers of Christ. Parents of the religious group stray away from western medicine, believing in the power of God and instead heal by prayer, accepting whatever happens naturally is God's will. But as a result, a number of young children pass away from treatable conditions like pneumonia or food poisoning.

"We have this tension here between the child's individual right to life and the parents' sort of individual right to practice their beliefs and faith," College of Idaho Associate Professor of Law Shaakirrah Sanders said.

Advocates in recent months have encouraged lawmakers to stop talking about the issue, and actually do something about it.

Attempts at changing current Idaho code in 2017 were once again unsuccessful.

"It was a bill that attempted a very complicated compromise that just didn't work," Rep. John Gannon said.

The compromise called for state intervention only in cases where neglecting medical treatment could result in a child's death or disability.

"I think that's pretty reasonable," Rep. Gannon said. "A parent wouldn't have to get aspirin or a lot of the over the counter medication that are available; you don't have to do that."

But some felt wording in the proposed bill would lead to more confusion.

"We've seen these types of efforts in the past and we've seen attempts to amend the statute fail," Sanders said.

In 2017, Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue even testified at an open hearing, urging lawmakers to make a change to current code that would hold all parents in the state to the same bar.

A draft in the works for 2018 would address some concerns raised last session, still requiring treatment in cases that would lead to "imminent risk of permanent physical harm or death", but also clarifying such code would not require parents to immunize their children, a concern brought forward in 2017.

"I don't think that it's too much to ask, at least if a child is dying or looking at a disability, that we have some medical review of that," Rep. Gannon said.

In years past, legislators have been cautious to enact legislation that could infringe on religious freedoms, and the Canyon County Coroner has expressed concerns that a change in law would not result in a change of action, and instead could lead Followers to no longer report deaths.

"Some people are going to see that as encroaching on parents' religious beliefs, but as I've said before, the right to religious practice normally does not extend to the extent that it could cause serious bodily injury, harm or death, and so that's where the statute could certainly use some tweaking," Sanders said.

So what will the 2018 session bring?

"Well you never know," Rep. Gannon said, "Especially with a subject that's as volatile as this one."

Sanders believes it unfortunately may take more child deaths before lawmakers will see the need for change.

"One could maybe assume that the only real way this issue could be resolved would be if there's a lawsuit  in the courts, and that could maybe cause the legislature to think about some amendments," Sanders said.
 

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