The local Democratic candidates for state Senate said Tuesday evening that they favor changing a law that shields parents who believe in faith healing and whose children get seriously sick or die from prosecution under child injury laws. The Republican incumbents were cool to the idea of changing the law, saying they worried about infringing on religious freedom.
One of those incumbents, state Sen. Lee Heider, a Republican from Twin Falls, was at the center of debate on the issue earlier this year. As chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, he said at the beginning of the 2016 session that while he was personally against changing the law, he would allow a hearing on a bill. Rep. John Gannon, a Boise Democrat, dropped off a bill in February, but it never got an introductory hearing. Heider said at the beginning of March that there wasn’t enough time left in the session to take it up.
Gannon brought a similar bill in 2014 that also never got a hearing. The issue got some attention beyond Idaho this spring after an American-based reporter for The Guardian wrote an article on the state’s law. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter in February called on lawmakers to study the issue over the interim; the work group held its last hearing a week-and-a-half ago and ended without any recommendation on what to do.
Most states give some legal latitude to parents who have religious objections to medical treatment, but Idaho is one of a handful that allows it as a defense in cases where a child dies. It has become an issue in Idaho mainly due to media attention on the Followers of Christ, a religious group that rejects conventional medicine in favor of prayer and treatments such as anointing with oil and who have a higher-than-normal number of child deaths among their members.
Speaking at a candidate forum in Twin Falls organized by the Times-News, Heider told the crowd Tuesday that there hadn’t been a bill to change the law and he doubts one will come in 2017. Heider repeated his concern that amending it would infringe on people’s First Amendment rights, saying that people who believe in faith healing love their children too and that they have the right to live according to their religious beliefs whether you agree with them or not.
“It’s hard to say you would prosecute one religion over another,” Heider said. “Or it’s the fault of a parent if a child dies.”
Deborah Silver, the Democrat who is running against Heider, said she supports changing the law, as did Scott McClure, the Democrat who is running against Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls. McClure said he is a lifelong Methodist and respects religion, but that the state should step in if a child dies. Silver pointed out that there has been a bill to change the law, apparently referring to Gannon’s, and said Heider is working with “different information” than her.
Patrick said he has wrestled with the issue and would have to see any bill, but he also emphasized that he worried about restricting religious freedom.