Advocates for amending faith healing laws convene, emotions run high on vaccine debate

Proponents of the bill say vaccine regulation is not a part of their proposal.
Posted at 11:05 PM, Jan 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-17 01:47:55-05

BOISE, Idaho — Treasure Valley law enforcement leaders -- among other advocates -- convened at the Idaho Statehouse tonight in another attempt to make their mission loud and clear to 2020 legislators: to save the lives of Idaho children who are denied modern medical care by their faith healing parents.

Advocates like Bruce Wingate, founder of the Protect Idaho Kids Foundation, have fought to repeal faith-healing religious exemption for years, but their efforts have been consistently voted down. Now, they're strategically treading lighter in their approach, by simply amending religious exemption laws to include the state's ability to shoot them down in cases where a child is facing serious injury or death.

"Would the first three rows just stand for minute as you're able? In the next decade, if history repeats itself, about 35 - 40 children will die from medical neglect -- from faith-based medical neglect. This is about that many people," said Wingate, in an effort to visually illustrate the issue.

Idaho is one of few states in the country with a law shielding parents who believe in faith-healing -- or in other words, denying their kids medical care -- from civil or criminal prosecution when their children die or become disabled.

"I think the question becomes that the children cannot make those decisions for themselves -- they're too young," said Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue.

Lawmakers who have opposed this proposal in the past have expressed concern with the government impeding on religious freedoms and parents' rights to make decisions for their own family.

"The governor's task force for children at risk estimated the risk of death was about ten times higher among children whose parents practice faith-healing only," said Wingate.

Again this year, advocates like Wingate and Rep. John Gannon (D - Boise) hope to convince lawmakers to make changes to religious exemption. But when various audience members brought up the topic of whether this would impact vaccination requirements, emotions ran high.

"Let's not let our emotions get out of control," said a Statehouse trooper. "I don't want to let anything to happen like that."

"This has nothing to do with vaccines!" said Wingate. "Immunization is not part of this legislation."

Rep. Gannon said it's probable that this bill will rise to the surface this session, but with some added changes, like making clear that this does not intend to interfere with a parent's decision on whether or not to vaccinate their children.

In the meantime, former Idaho Chief Justice and Attorney General Jim Jones said it's very likely Idaho's current laws shielding faith-healing parents would be disagreed with by the US Supreme Court.

"When you say that that group has the ability that nobody else in the state has, to rely only upon prayer, you have violated the constitution," said Jones.

Since religious exemption laws were enacted in 1972, the medical community estimates that roughly 200 Idaho children have died due to causes that could have been prevented with modern medicine.