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Politics & Government

Interim Committee Punts On Faith Healing Recommendation

A legislative panel will not submit a recommendation to the Idaho Legislature on whether or not the state's law allowing families to cite religious reasons for medical decisions without fear of being charged with a crime should be repealed, punting any chance for change back to individual lawmakers who have previously failed to gain traction inside the religiously conservative Statehouse.

The 10-member panel met for the last time Monday about the faith healing exemption after listening to roughly three hours of public testimony and adjourned without discussing any of the concerns raised over the past few months.

"We were never assigned to come up with a piece of legislation. We were assigned as a working group to come and learn more," Rep. Joe Palmer, a Republican from Meridian who co-chaired the committee said, adding that he wouldn't be submitting a bill on the issue. ""We've done everything that the working group was asked to do."

Fellow co-chair Dan Johnson, a GOP senator from Lewiston, said he was still reviewing material and didn't know if he would bring a bill forward to next year's legislative session.

Currently, Idaho law lets families cite religious reasons for medical decisions without risking being charged with neglect, abuse or manslaughter. Critics argue the exemption causes unnecessary harm to children. Advocates counter that the law protects religious and parental rights.

Focus on the exemption has exploded in Idaho as more attention has been placed on the deaths of children among members of the Followers of Christ in southwestern Idaho from treatable conditions, including pneumonia and food poisoning. Many children are buried at a cemetery overlooking the Snake River.

"We in the medical community beg you to help the children and parents by changing the law," said Dr. Joshua Durham, a physician based in Boise, during Monday's meeting.

A handful of Idaho's few Democratic lawmakers have called for a full repeal of the exemption, but Republican leaders have refused to allow such proposals to move forward. A legislative panel's recommendation wouldn't have guaranteed success in changing the law, but it would signal possible consensus — as well as willingness to consider the issue.

The legislative panel met twice this year after Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter asked House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Brent Hill form a committee to study the issue. Yet the focus of the meetings often strayed from focusing on the merits of the law. Instead, the meetings included testimony criticizing the use of vaccines, warning of the dangers of Western medicine and urging lawmakers to limit abortion.

"I use prayer and holistic health care," said Miste Gardner Karlfeldt, executive director of newly created Health Freedom Idaho. "What if one of one of my children gets my autoimmune disease and I don't want to do chemotherapy? That's my concern."

In 2015, a governor-appointed working group found that the deaths of two children occurred because the families withheld medical assistance for religious reasons. One death was related to complications of diabetes, and the other followed a prolonged gastrointestinal illness. The report concluded the deaths could have been prevented.

The group did not recommend any major changes though, explaining that "because members are supportive of religious freedom, they recommend that the standard for state intervention be limited in scope."

Otter's spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.