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Idaho Legislature Panel Considers Faith Healing, Child Mortality and Religious Exemptions

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There are no legal consequences for Idahoans who use faith healing without medical care when their children suffer, are permanently damaged or even die due to lack of traditional medical intervention. But for Jean Fisher, Chief of the Ada County Prosecutor's Office's Special Crimes Unit, that's a glaring hole in the Gem State's criminal justice system.

"I don't think the rights of the parent should so supersede the rights of the child," she told the Idaho Legislature's Children at Risk-Faith Healing Working Group the morning of Aug. 4. 

The legislative working group convened in the wake of a recently-published report by the Idaho Child Fatality Review Team, at the request of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter. Additionally, numerous media reports have focused on the Gem State being a safe haven for families and even communities that practice faith healing.

Religious belief-based rejection of medical treatment was listed in the review team's report. which confirmed five Idaho infants had died in 2013 from lack of medical intervention. And in the past three years, 10 other infants and children died under similar circumstances. According to Fisher, that number may be the tip of the iceberg.

"An entire community is not reporting because they all believe the same thing," she said. 
While the harms of medical neglect on account of religious belief may be under-reported to the state, however, the damage it causes is real for former Followers of Christ member Linda Martin, who told legislators at the Peaceful Valley Cemetery used by Followers of Christ, there are 210 children's graves.

"There are children in those graves, and we don't know who they are or how old they are," she said.

Dan Sevy, a member of Followers of Christ, told lawmakers that he and fellow members indeed practiced faith healing on children. Often, he said, children heal on their own without religious intervention, but in serious cases, he said they may pray over the body of a sick or injured child. Sometimes the children recover. 

"We should each have a personal choice for the health of ourselves and our families," he said. "We believe pharmaceuticals and medicine are from Satan. That is our belief and use it to condemn no-one but ourselves."

But Sevy's comments didn't sit well with Idaho Sen. Jeff Siddoway (R-Terreton).

"[God] has given to all of us our ability to make choices, but along with that he has given us knowledge," he said. "We're now in a situation where we can fix things medically, and I believe those are gifts from God, and we should use those gifts."

No conclusion was reached by the end of the legislative working group's Thursday session, and while its co-chair, Sen. Dan Johnson (R-Lewiston), said another meeting would be scheduled, no date was set.