A woman who wants to change Idaho’s faith-healing law is sending legislative candidates a questionnaire about their stances on the state’s legal protections for parents of children who get seriously sick or die after faith healing.
The only Magic Valley candidates to answer the survey so far are Dale Ewersen, the Republican running against Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum; Reggy Sternes, the Republican challenger in House District 25; and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the incumbent in the District 25 House seat.
Ewersen said he is against changing the law, while Sternes and Bell staked out more nuanced positions.
“I do understand that something needs to be done but do know the parental rights issue is difficult as is the right of religious beliefs,” Bell wrote in response. “I cannot sponsor a bill, again, I do not have the background necessary to do so. However, I am very willing to be taught and helped with understanding this very serious issue.”
Sternes wrote an essay on his campaign website explaining his position, in which he said he was sympathetic to the advocates’ concerns but also emphasized the importance of parental rights and religious freedom. He concluded by saying he doesn’t have enough information yet to know how he would vote:
“My research to date is composed of emotional articles written by those opposed to the current Idaho statute. I’ve found no articles that support the other side of this matter. I certainly have not found compelling data or evidence that faith-based or religious healing is systematically harming children in Idaho. It may or it may not. I just don’t have the data yet.
“I believe it is incumbent upon me to do a balanced examination of the facts, siding with the current law until I have a complete understanding of the matter. Let me assure you, if my examination of the facts determine that children are being unduly harmed because parents or guardians are not using reasonable medical care that’s available to them, despite their religious beliefs, I’d support loosening or removing Idaho religious exemptions.”
None of the candidates from Twin Falls’ District 24 have answered the survey yet, although Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, is on record as being against changing the law. Deborah Silver, the Democrat who is running against him, has said she favors changing the law.
Idaho is one of the few states where religious beliefs can be used as a defense if a child dies as a result of lack of medical treatment, and also one of the few states where there are documented cases in recent years of children from faith-healing families dying from ailments that likely could have been prevented by medical care.
Some advocates, including a couple of former members of the faith-healing Followers of Christ Church, have been trying to get the law changed, and Boise Democrat Rep. John Gannon introduced bills in 2014 and 2016 to change it, but he hasn’t been able to get a hearing, with some Republicans saying they worry about encroaching on religious freedom.
Idaho’s law has gotten a lot more attention lately, though, after the Guardian newspaper ran a lengthy article on the law, and Mariah Walton, who has pulmonary hypertension and is gravely ill because her parents didn’t treat a hole in her heart when she was a child, has been on national news programs with her sister Emily and become the face of the movement to change the law.
So what do the rest of the surveys show? Many more Democrats than Republicans have answered so far, with most of the GOP incumbents ignoring the survey so far. Out of the nine Democratic newcomers and challengers and eight Democratic incumbents who have answered the survey so far, all support changing the law.
The Republicans are more divided — going on the survey answers alone, two Republican challengers and two incumbents said they support changing the law, while one incumbent, Bell, was a maybe. Three of the Republican challengers are against changing the law, while two, including Sternes, said they would be open to it but need to learn more. One GOP challenger in northern Idaho, Priscilla Giddings, declined to fill out the survey.
The two Republican incumbents who favor a change are Sen. Lori den Hartog, R-Meridian, and Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. Davis’ support could be crucial, given his leadership position.
“In short, ‘yes’ I support a change, but it would depend on what the change is,” Davis wrote.
Ammon Emanuel Prolife, who is running as the Constitution Party candidate for the District 8B House seat currently occupied by Leadore Republican Merrill Beyeler, said he is against changing the law. He is the son of Pro-Life, an organic strawberry farmer from Letha and perennial candidate who ran for governor in 2014 and is running for U.S. Senate this year.
Prolife, the son, wrote:
“More laws is hardly the answer. This is what the court system was designed for. If a jury finds parents guilty of ‘gross neglect’ leading to their child’s death, then that’s that. Are you for forced vaccinations?
“What is your position on abortion, because a lot more ‘children’ died through surgical abortion than just 2, in 2012.
“Furthermore, I will have you know, I am an entirely ‘rational’ individual, which is why the name of my “Health Care Provider” is ‘Jesus Christ’. He offers better rates than socialized ‘OtterCare’, and a corrupt medical system in the pocket of big pharma. Good day.”