Prayer instead of medical care in Idaho

7 Investigates: The faith healing debate.

BOISE - A clause in an Idaho law protects parents from being prosecuted if they choose not to bring their child to a doctor, and they end up dying from a treatable illness. Only five other states have such a religious exemption.

Former member of the Followers of Christ Linda Martin walked KTVB’s Tami Tremblay around Peaceful Valley Cemetery. Martin says she is related to most of the people buried in the private Caldwell cemetery.

"There's just so many of them out here," said Martin as she looked at the graves. "You look around and it's like where do you start and where do you end?"

Martin says when you are raised in the Pentecostal church you are taught to never talk about the religion. The "Followers" believe in faith healing. They do not believe in medical care for adults or children.

"You know, these kids never had a chance," said Martin. "They have a 14th amendment right to equal protection under the laws. Idaho's child protection laws do not apply to these children so their 14th amendment right is being denied."

"It's something the legislature has to pay attention to," said Rep. John Gannon, (D) Idaho.

Rep. Gannon has been pushing for change. He says a clause in an Idaho law is allowing too many children to die.

"This law has applied to every parent in Idaho for the last 30 years," explained Gannon.

"The practice of parent or guardian who chooses for his child's treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be considered to have violated the duty of care to such child," read Sen. Lee Heider, (R) Idaho.

Sen. Heider is the chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

"We don't feel this is an issue that needs to be addressed in Idaho this year," said Heider.

Although KTVB was denied any interviews with the followers, Heider says he has visited with them in Canyon County.

"I think these people try very hard to take care of their children," said Heider. " I don't find fault in the fact that because of their religious beliefs we should prosecute them if a child dies. You know, it's a first amendment right, the freedom of religion."

"There are always limits to any constitutional right, and that's where I think the questions lie here," said Shaakirrah Sanders, who is an associate law professor at the University of Idaho. "What are the limits to religious freedom and the right to parental control and where does that child's individual right to life really come into play? I do wonder why this little carve out and what purpose it serves when we already tell parents in so many other ways that they have to do things regarding their children."

In a letter written last summer to Gov. Otter from his task force on children at risk, some serious concerns were outlined about the religious exemptions.

"If a child is permitted to die from a treatable medical illness that starts to have some concerns in my mind," said Dr. Paul McPherson, who is the medical director of CARES at St. Luke's Children's Hospital.

Dr. McPherson says the statistics are alarming. According to the Idaho Registry, from 2002 to 2011, of all Idahoans that died, 4 percent were children. When looking at Peaceful Valley Cemetery the number goes up drastically to 31 percent. More recently, the Idaho Child Fatality Review Team found two children died from treatable ailments last year because of religious beliefs. Dr. McPherson says the law needs to be changed.

"We don't intend this to be a law to mandate immunizations," said Dr. McPherson. "It would be used only if a child's death is imminent from a treatable disease."

A statement by Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Taylor was also included in the letter to the governor. He wrote that a religious defense to crimes against children prevents a prosecutor from intervening when necessary. He said it is important that parents know they have a legal duty to provide their children with the necessities of life regardless of their religious beliefs.

Martin says she hopes change is coming to the Gem State because it's heartbreaking watching more and more graves appear at the Peaceful Valley Cemetery.

"This is the third generation of children I've watched die," said Martin. "When does it stop?"

Oregon recently removed it's religious shields, and Martin believes it has saved lives and is secretly welcomed by the followers.

"The laws have worked, because it takes the responsibility off the parents," said Martin. "If they want to take their children into a doctor they're not being shunned by their family anymore because it is the law."

A bill was just submitted to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee addressing faith healing. The bill would amend the current injury to child law by allowing parents to still have the right to refuse vaccinations or extraordinary care for their children. However, if their life is at serious risk, medical help would be required by law.

A hearing has not been scheduled at this point. Last week, Gov. Otter called for a legislative committee to be formed to look at the religious exemptions in Idaho. He says he does have concerns, and hopes a compromise can be made that will protect all children.

Copyright 2016 KTVB


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