BOISE • Legislation to remove a legal exemption for parents who believe in faith healing and whose children get seriously ill or die isn’t going anywhere this year.
The governor had already asked legislative leaders to name a work group of lawmakers to study the issue after the session, but they haven’t decided whether they will.
Senate Health and Welfare Chairman Lee Heider, a Twin Falls Republican, said in January he would allow a hearing on changing the law, and Rep. John Gannon, a Democrat from Boise, dropped off a bill three weeks ago to remove the exemption in the child injury law for faith-healing parents in cases where there is an imminent risk to their child of permanent physical harm or death.
Heider said Thursday, though, that Gannon never asked him to set a hearing and it’s too late in the session now.
“I would say the time has pretty well run out,” Heider said.
Heider said he would not carry the bill himself, viewing it as prosecuting people for exercising their religious beliefs. He said he has researched the issue, including talking to the prosecutor and coroner in Canyon County, where many of the members of the Followers of Christ Church live, and also attending one of their services.
“I’m a First Amendment guy,” Heider said. “And I believe in the First Amendment, which gives people freedom of religion.”
Followers of Christ members believe in prayer and anointing with oil and are opposed to conventional medicine. They have been the focus of much of the debate on the issue because of the higher-than-average number of child deaths in their families.
Heider said the pressure he has been getting has come from out-of-staters.
“It is not Idahoans that are interested in bringing the legislation forward,” Heider said.
Gannon, who first brought a bill to change the law in 2014 but has been unable to get a hearing, said he had been in contact with Heider since dropping off the bill.
“He could have scheduled the hearing any time he wanted to,” Gannon said.
If nothing is going to happen this year, Gannon said, lawmakers should study the issue after the session and do something first thing next year.
“It’s not too late to have an interim committee, so let’s have an interim committee study this and solve it,” Gannon said.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter announced about three weeks ago he had sent House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill a letter asking them to appoint a work group of lawmakers to study the issue. Hill, a Rexburg Republican, said Thursday they haven’t decided whether to do that.
Hill said he had talked to the Senate committee chairmen about the idea and asked them to give him their feedback next week. Hill and Bedke don’t need legislative authorization to name one, and they don’t need to decide before the end of the session, which Hill said he expects to come March 24.
“We’re just trying to determine if there is a need to gather information,” he said.
Work groups, Hill said, are usually formed to study issues that require more data gathering or analysis. This, he said, is an issue where much of the information is already out there and many people know where they stand.
“A working group is not going to change people’s minds,” Hill said.
Emily Walton, a Capitol lobbyist and College of Western Idaho trustee who grew up in Declo and whose sister is gravely ill today because her parents denied her medical care as a child, said there should have been a hearing. Now, Walton said, she would rather see lawmakers create an interim committee, which has more power to recommend legislation than a work group, to study the issue.
“We’d rather have some people work on it who can actually get something done,” she said.
A few advocates for changing the law came to the statehouse to make their case to reporters Thursday afternoon, including Dr. Paul McPherson, a doctor at St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital who was a member of the state’s Child Fatality Review Team, which studied child deaths statewide and found two in 2012 that could likely have been prevented had medical care not been denied for religious reasons.
McPherson said he couldn’t go into details, “but from a medical perspective, both those deaths were very preventable.” Instead, he said, they died what were likely “prolonged and agonizing” deaths.
McPherson said he’s not calling for requiring parents to get their children routine medical care, but that “when a child is at death’s doorstep” their parents should be required to seek medical help.
Dr. Joshua Durham, a family practice physician at St. Alphonsus, said changing the law could help parents who belong to faith-healing religious groups and want to seek medical care for their children but are deterred by social pressure. He pointed to Oregon, where, he said, deaths dropped off after lawmakers got rid of the exemption there in 2011.
“What does that tell you?” Durham said. “That tells you parents want to take their kids to the doctor.”