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BOISE • Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is calling on lawmakers to create a work group to study faith healing and child deaths in Idaho.

“I understand it is a challenge to balance the desire to protect children while still being supportive of religious freedom, but I believe we must give this issue a thorough examination,” Otter wrote in a letter to House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill.

“I am therefore asking that you consider convening a legislative workgroup to assess the Child Fatality Review Team’s report along with other sources of research and testimony regarding this policy issue.”

The report is one the review team released last year that found two children died in 2012 from likely preventable causes who didn’t receive medical treatment because of their parents’ religious or personal beliefs.

Otter’s announcement coincided with a panel discussion at the Capitol, “Medical Neglect and Childhood Mortality in Idaho,” that had been scheduled for Thursday evening. Erwin Sonnenberg, a panelist and former Fatality Review Team Member, said the law needs to be changed soon, and the workgroup shouldn’t be allowed to delay that. Sonnenberg was Ada County coroner for 36 years, and has done autopsies on members of the faith-healing Followers of Christ church.

“I’m glad it’s coming to a head, but we have to go forward with the legislation we have,” Sonnenberg said.

Panelist Emily Walton said she was glad Otter was taking an interest in the issue.

“My opinion is this is great,” she said, “but we just have to have people come out and talk about it.”

Walton grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon family in Declo that didn’t believe in going to the doctor, and her sister, Mariah, who was born with a hole in her heart but never got treatment, suffered throughout her childhood with shortness of breath, coughing and fatigue.

“As the oldest sister, I watched her,” Emily Walton said. “She was much smaller, she was blue, she wasn’t growing.”

Emily said she now regrets not just taking her little sister to the hospital and seeking help, despite their parents’ wishes. Mariah, now 20, told the story about the day when, at 18, she collapsed in the bathroom and couldn’t move. Her mother told her she was fine and not to talk about it, but Mariah went to a doctor on her own. She found out she had pulmonary hypertension.

“When I got back to my parents, my mom didn’t even want to look at me,” Mariah Walton said. “She said, ‘Don’t talk about it, I don’t want to hear about it.’”

Mariah Walton has been hospitalized many times since, has come close to death and is on oxygen full time. She needs a heart-lung transplant to live but needs to get stronger first to get one. Mariah said she is angry about the way she was treated as a child.

“I feel it is not OK for people to be allowed to ignore modern science that saves lives,” she said. “I had no vote and no power over my parents, and they were legally allowed to let me get to this point.”

Otter’s announcement also comes as Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, who has advocated for changing the law since 2014, has a bill ready to change Idaho’s child-injury law, which exempts parents from prosecution if they have chosen to treat their sick children “by prayer or spiritual means alone.”

Gannon delivered his bill, which adds the line “unless such practice creates an imminent risk of permanent physical harm or death” to the current exemption, to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday.

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“I’m very glad that the governor has taken an interest in this,” Gannon said Thursday morning. “We just have to see where it goes.”

It remains to be seen how Otter’s announcement will affect the chances for a hearing on Gannon’s bill this year.

“I think the governor deserves credit for addressing this issue and taking some leadership in it,” Gannon said.

The issue started to receive attention in Idaho a few years ago and has centered on the Followers of Christ. Gannon first brought a bill in 2014 but couldn’t get a hearing. Opponents cited concerns about restricting religious freedom.

Otter announced his call for a work group at an Idaho Press Club breakfast Thursday morning, and in his comments stressed that he doesn’t want to hinder anyone’s religious freedom. Otter said the state needs to protect children, “but at the same time, respect the religious tendencies that folks may have against medical attention. At what point does that become child neglect and abuse is a question that I can’t answer.”

Otter stressed that freedom of religion is the first freedom mentioned in the First Amendment, and was obviously very important to the Founding Fathers.

“They didn’t do them alphabetically,” he said.

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