"Maybe," said Bruce Wingate. "Maybe this is the year."
Wingate took a long breath and looked down at the draft of a measure that's certain to trigger a fierce debate in the coming weeks of the 2019 Idaho Legislature.
"You know what? Forget I said 'maybe.' It can't be 'maybe' anymore. It has to be 'possibly,'" he said. "Yes, that's it: 'possibly.'"
Wingate's "possibly" sounded a lot more optimistic than his "maybe" had a year ago. That's when his organization, Protect Idaho Kids, was prepping for the fight of its life, pushing back against Idaho's so-called faith-healing exemptions. To be more precise, Wingate stressed, "it's the fight for the lives of Idaho children" who've been denied life-saving medical care in lieu of faith healing. On February 21, 2018, Wingate and nearly 100 others
carried 183 tiny, empty coffins up Capitol Boulevard and stacked them on the steps of the Idaho Statehouse—one coffin for each Idaho infant, child or teen that, according to PIK, had died since the exemptions were put into place in the 1970s. The February demonstration was sobering, and the words shared there were as bone-chilling as the single-digit temperature.
"My brother Steven was born with spina bifida. Our parents never took Steven to a doctor," said Willie Hughes, looking down at an empty coffin with his brother's name printed on the side. Hughes' family were members of Followers of Christ, a church that practices faith healing and believes death and illness are the will of God. "The elders prayed and rubbed olive oil on him. He died of bronchial pneumonia. He was only 3."
- Harrison Berry
- February 21, 2018
Wingate said the demonstration may have been too much for some bystanders.
"They supported the effort, but didn't support the tactic," he said. "But we had a lot of people who were frustrated. The Idaho Legislature, by refusing to act on this, needed to recognize that kids are dying. They're suffering."
But when two proposed bills were circulated soon after the demonstration, they didn't go anywhere. Not a vote. Not a hearing. Nothing.
Wingate was crestfallen.
"We were told that, because 2018 was an election year with every House and Senate seat on the ballot, the exemption debate was too hot a topic for the legislature leadership to touch," he said.
The summer of 2018 saw Idaho's latest incident of faith healing harming children. Lester Kester Jr. of Caldwell admitted to the 11-year molestation of his five children, while his wife, Sarah, told investigators that she had "prayed for the demon" to leave her husband instead of contacting authorities.
By November, Wingate was increasingly frustrated and even penned an emotionally charged letter resigning as leader of PIK.
"I thought this year would be our best chance to create change," wrote Wingate. "By resigning now, someone else can step forward and possibly get improved response."
But Wingate's letter stirred up responses just as emotional from PIK members, who begged him to stay and double down on their commitment to the cause.
"I'm back," Wingate wrote several days later. "I am offering to once again become the point man on this issue."
"Honestly, I don't want to talk too much about that letter," said Wingate. "That said, it definitely was a 'wow' moment for the organization. Ever since then, I'll send an email to our many supporters and I'll get some fabulous feedback, almost instantaneous. The level of commitment has never been higher."
Speaking of that commitment, Wingate said supporters of PIK comprise an impressive list, including prosecutors, law enforcement officials, lawmakers, child care advocates and former members of the Followers of Christ church. Former Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court Jim Jones and former Idaho Governor Phil Batt are also staunch supporters.
That naturally brought the conversation with Wingate to the possibility of seeing any support from Idaho's chief executive, newly inaugurated Gov. Brad Little.
"Gov. Little isn't going to do anything to alienate anybody. During the campaign, he stressed that educating the public on this was important," said Wingate. "But honestly, I think he'll support something that the legislature approves. I don't think he'd veto it if it comes his way."
Simply put, if there's any movement on the issue, it will have to come through the 2019 session of the Idaho Legislature. And the biggest difference this year will be something as old and fraught as government itself: compromise.
"Our experts went to the Legislative Services Office at the Statehouse and asked them to put [some legislation] together for us to propose this year," said Wingate. "And here it is."
Wingate held a seven-page draft, similar in some ways to previous proposed legislation that challenged Idaho's faith-healing exemptions of civil or criminal liability for child neglect. But one major change has been included in the latest draft, a change that addresses lawmakers' discomfort with challenging someone's constitutional right to freedom of religion. Quite ironically, the amendment could be dubbed "Plan B" because the additional words can be found in subsection B of the exemption.
"We don't want to repeal the religious exemption as a whole anymore. That's a nonstarter for someone who argues that this infringes on the freedom of religion," said Wingate. "What we're talking about is a situation where someone uses prayers through spiritual means alone, if that person knows that the life of the child could sustain permanent disability or death without medical treatment."
Wingate concedes that hardliners may not think the new proposed bill is tough enough.
"We've got members in the Idaho House who tell us they'll accept this if the Senate goes along. And then, we've got members in the Senate saying the same thing about the House," said Wingate. "And this year, we can tell all of them that we don't want to repeal the religious exemption as a whole, only to set limits on it when it comes to permanent disability or the death of a child. We understand that there are some lawmakers who don't want to offend certain constituents. This should allow them the breathing room to consider this new proposal."
Wingate added that the revised measure "should at least get a hearing. Idaho deserves to be heard on this."
- Ryan Johnson
In the meantime, Wingate and PIK will spend a few busy weeks publicizing their renewed effort. On Wednesday, Jan. 16, they'll host a free screening of the short film Dark Clouds of Canyon County in the Lincoln Auditorium of the Idaho Statehouse. A post-screening panel discussion will include members of the legislature, local law enforcement and members of the Former Followers of Christ. On Wednesday, Jan. 30, organizers will host a more solemn event under the Idaho Capitol rotunda: a sunset memorial service to mark the passing of all of the Idaho children who have died since faith-healing exemptions were instituted.
"It's a significant difference from marching coffins up Capitol Boulevard," said Wingate. "I fully expect a lot more legislators and members of the public, no matter where they stand on the issue, to pay close attention. How could they not?"
Wingate shuffled through a tall stack of documents to retrieve one small but important piece of paper.
"Look at this. It's a Western Union money order that someone sent to us. It's for $6. She sent us two previous money orders for $4. That's all she could afford," said Wingate. "What an effort. What a statement. She believes in what we're doing. How could we not keep trying?"