BOISE — A bill to make it easier for courts to get involved if children whose parents believe in faith healing are at risk of serious injury or death was voted down in the Senate Tuesday.
Most of the senators who spoke worried the bill went too far in violating parents’ religious freedom, although some said they would vote against it because it didn’t go far enough to protect children. Its supporters said the bill was the best way politically possible to give some protection to dying children without turning parents into criminals for their beliefs.
After two hours of often emotional debate, the Senate voted 11-24 to kill the bill. Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, read the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and said he believes in worshiping God according to his own conscience and allowing others to do the same.
“We have to protect those rights from those that would take them away,” he said. “And I feel this bill is a taking of a right.”
Heider said the government should not take the rights of a minority “in the name of goodness, correctness, medical appropriateness, you name it.”
“I think it’s important that we remember our heritage and what our Constitution directs us and our religious beliefs personally,” he said.
Heider, chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, was at the center of debate over the issue last year after declining to hold a hearing on a bill that would have removed the exemption from criminal prosecution for faith-healing parents.
The bill that was voted down Tuesday came from the senators who were part of a group of lawmakers who studied the issue before the session. Carried by Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, it would have left the exemptions in criminal law in place but made some changes to civil law to open the possibility of a court ordering treatment in some cases where a child’s serious injury or death could result without medical treatment.
Debate about the issue has mostly centered on the Followers of Christ, a church whose members don’t believe in conventional medicine and practice treatment by prayer and methods such as anointing with oil. Its members mostly live in southwestern Idaho, and the state’s Child Fatality Review Team has identified 10 faith healing-related child deaths in the period from 2011 to 2013 which may have been avoided with medical treatment. This estimate was arrived at with information from death certificates and coroner’s reports, and the report says it could understate the total.
Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, whose district includes many members of the church and who has some of them among her neighbors and friends, spoke at length in defense of them as people and against the bill.
“I can tell you they are hard-working, dependable people,” she said. “They take care of each other and they take care of themselves.”
Lodge told her colleagues about a family she knows who have had three children die, including one, a young adult, on Sunday. Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue, who favors getting rid of the exemptions from criminal prosecution, brought this case up Monday during the committee hearing on the bill. Lodge criticized him for spending four hours on Sunday investigating the death, saying it was traumatic for the family.
“These are loving, caring parents,” she said.
Other lawmakers said the bill didn’t do enough to protect children.
“I want to save lives,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. “And I want to save the lives of those who have no voice for themselves. And this bill doesn’t get there for me.”
Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, pointed to the debate and said a law that would prosecute parents who believe in faith healing would never pass.
“For me, when I balance a parent’s right to practice their religion and I balance that against the child’s right to live, I choose differently than some,” he said. “Does a parent’s right to practice their religion mean that the child’s life stands in jeopardy?”
Davis then read from the 1994 Prince v. Massachusetts U.S. Supreme Court case, which held the government can at times interfere with parental rights to protect a child’s welfare, and said he believes in protecting life.
“If it saves just one,” he said, “for me that vote is worth it.”
Several dozen supporters of changing the law held a vigil at the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, standing around the first-floor rotunda around a table with 36 candles on it to represent children who might die without a change in the law.
Bruce Wingate, the head of Protect Idaho Kids, said the bill’s defeat was a victory because it didn’t go far enough, but that advocates should keep the conversation going.
“It’s a difficult issue but we’ll carry on the fight,” he said.
Former attorney general, state Supreme Court Justice and Magic Valley native Jim Jones, who retired from the bench in January, said the state already steps in to protect children with laws such as banning child labor or child marriage.
“Infants and toddlers in the faith-healing community don’t have the ability to make the choice for themselves,” he said. “It is being made for them by others.”
Jones said he finds it contradictory that the state’s official stand is opposed to abortion, yet Idaho doesn’t always require you to give that child life-saving medical care.
“It’s really odd to me that we would be arguing over the idea of whether some people should be exempt from the criminal laws because of their religion,” he said.