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ID Lawmakers' 'Faith' in Spiritual-Healing Exemptions to be Tested Again

Idaho legislators hold their second work-group meeting on religious exemption laws and faith healing Oct. 10 at the State Capitol. (JSquish/Wikimedia Commons)
Idaho legislators hold their second work-group meeting on religious exemption laws and faith healing Oct. 10 at the State Capitol. (JSquish/Wikimedia Commons)
October 6, 2016

BOISE, Idaho – Idaho lawmakers once again take up the religious exemption law this month.

It's hard to say how many children have died as a result of Idaho's faith-healing exemption, but a 2015 governor's task force found more than 30 percent of graves between 2002 and 2011 in the Followers of Christ cemetery were children.

That's 10 times the rate of child mortality in the state in that same time frame.

Idaho is one of only six states where parents who withhold medical care for religious reasons are exempt from manslaughter charges.

Rita Swan, president of the group Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, maintains some members of these faiths are actually anticipating a law on the books reversing this.

"An ex-member of Followers of Christ said she believed that many of the younger members of Followers of Christ would be relieved to obey the law, if there were a law to require them to get medical care for their children,” Swan relates. “It would relieve them of the church pressures on them."

On Monday, Idaho lawmakers will hold their second work group on faith healing exemption laws. The meeting will be open for public comment.

The Idaho Legislature, along with nearly every other state, passed religious exemptions to parental neglect for faith-healing practices in the 1970s.

In 2011, attention on preventable deaths for children in Oregon pushed that state to eliminate the exemptions.

After that, Swan says many Followers of Christ members reportedly migrated to Idaho, and there are a number of groups that use Idaho's laws to shield their faith-healing practices.

"Idaho is a combination of very bad laws and several churches that withhold medical care, even when it costs the lives of children,” she states. “So, it's a very bad combination. We call it the worst state in the nation on this issue."

Groups that rely on faith healing cite their First Amendment rights to practice their faith.

In order for parents to be exempt from the law, they must treat children "through prayer or spiritual means alone," even when a child has a highly treatable infection, such as pneumonia.

Swan counters that the First Amendment doesn't give parents the right to neglect their children.

"The state should stand up for the children, and should say that all children deserve these basic protections," she stresses.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ID