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Panel calls for changes to Idaho's faith-healing exemption during 2020 session

Child-welfare advocates, state legislators and police have fought the faith-healing exemption for years in hopes of reducing child deaths in the state.
Credit: Jake King / Idaho Press
Idaho State Rep. John Gannon (left)

BOISE, Idaho — Growing up in the Followers of Christ community, Linda Martin knew about multiple children around her who died without medical care, she told a group gathered Thursday afternoon at the Capitol for a discussion on faith-healing.

Members of the small, private Christian sect, which has a strong presence in Canyon County, refuse to seek medical treatment for themselves or their children, instead relying on prayer.

Idaho is one of the few states that shields faith-healing adherents from civil or criminal prosecution when their child dies or sustains disabling injuries without medical care. Child-welfare advocates, state legislators and police have fought the faith-healing exemption for years in hopes of reducing child deaths in the state, and yet, bills to change or repeal the exemption have been voted down or have died in committee.

Supporters of the exemption say it protects freedom of religion.

Martin, who said she left the Followers of Christ church at age 16 after being raped by an older male relative, took part in a panel discussion Thursday in support of modifying Idaho’s faith-healing exemption, which proponents hope to pass during the 2020 legislative session.

“These were my family members, friends, relatives — people I grew up with,” Martin said. “This is almost like a post-birth abortion. Everybody wants to force a fetus to be born, but they don’t want to take care of that child once it’s born. There is no protections, and it’s time to stop that. … Why should these children not have equal protection?”

In addition to Martin, the panel included:

  • Protect Idaho Kids founder Bruce Wingate
  • Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue
  • State Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise
  • Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson
  • Former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones
  • First Presbyterian Church Pastor Andrew Kukla
  • Idaho Children’s Trust Fund Director Roger Sherman
  • Willie Hughes, who was raised within the Followers of Christ and is Martin’s nephew

Like Martin, Hughes said his childhood was marked with death. He said he watched his 2-year-old brother die at home from a type of pneumonia. The toddler was never taken to the doctor.

MORE: Faith-healing panel to discuss limiting religious exemptions in Idaho

Tara Kester, who grew up in Canyon County’s faith-healing community and is related to Martin, was supposed to speak as well, but was unable to attend. As an adult, Kester told law enforcement about the sexual abuse she and her sisters suffered in secret as children. She is the daughter of Lester and Sarah Kester, both of whom were recently sentenced to prison for their roles in the chronic abuse.

“No child should have to be beaten, raped or medically neglected for their entire childhood until they’re able to leave home,” Martin said. “Removing these religious exemptions gives these children another lifeline. It gives them another outlet, it gives them a helping hand. … It’s just time.”

Wingate, whose nonprofit hosted the Thursday event at the state Capitol, said Idaho lawmakers have resisted removing or changing the exemption because they don’t want to step on religious freedoms or parental rights. 

Credit: Jake King/Idaho Press
Bruce Wingate, right, speaks to the audience during a panel about faith healing in Idaho.

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“Sadly, these religious exemption laws have been a death sentence for as many as 200 Idaho children,” Wingate said. “Every person should have the right to believe what they want, but they should not be allowed to harm another person because of those beliefs. … In most cases, these children suffer and die because of belief that is not their own. Some the children may agree with their parents, but many of them are too young to even comprehend what religious exemptions are. They should be able to become of age when they make an adult decision about faith healing for themselves.”

Wingate said the proposed bill would amend Idaho’s religious exemption, which was passed in 1972, so it doesn’t apply if the child is at risk of serious injury or death. This year, they hope to garner support from the House and Senate judiciary committees in hopes of finally passing legislation.

Gannon said recent changes have been made to make clear the proposed bill has nothing to do with state’s immunization laws, which allow a parent or guardian “to claim an exemption from immunization requirements for their child for medical, religious or other reasons,” according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. These laws also require all Idaho students — from preschool to 12th grade — attending a public, private or parochial school to meet minimum immunization requirements unless exempted.

However, members of Thursday’s audience voiced concern the legislation would actually apply to vaccines or act as a precursor to future laws, causing slight contention; an Idaho State trooper reminded everyone of the rules of decorum at one point. Panelists assured the audience the proposed legislation would not impact immunization exemptions.

“This has nothing to do with vaccines,” Wingate said. “We aren’t trying to change the immunization laws.”

“If there is a medical mistake or vaccinations cause harm, there is legal recourse for these people to seek,” Martin added. “When these children die from faith healing, there is no recourse or laws to protect them.”

Olivia Heersink is the Canyon County public safety reporter for the Idaho Press. You can reach her at oheersink@idahopress.com. Follow her on Twitter @heersinkolivia.

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