Faith-healing in Idaho: A Spokane paper doesn't ask enough questions

The Spokesman-Review, the major daily east of the mountains in Washington state, doesn’t have a religion reporter, which is one reason why the Religion News Association started up its own website in Spokane in 2012.

Tracy Simmons is still capably running five years later, which may be why religion coverage in the Spokesman-Review is pretty rare. But on Tuesday, the paper did feature a piece about a state Senate bill in neighboring Idaho that tried to regulate faith-healing groups.

This is a tremendously interesting topic but see if you can understand the story as it appeared in Tuesday’s paper:

BOISE -- Controversial faith-healing legislation narrowly cleared an Idaho Senate committee on Monday, after a hearing in which nearly everyone who spoke opposed it.
Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, said his bill, SB 1182, makes a series of changes to Idaho’s existing faith-healing exemption from civil liability for child neglect, but makes no changes in the state’s criminal laws, which include a religious exemption from prosecution for faith-healing parents who deny their children medical care and the children die or suffer permanent injury.
“I’m not sure that it really changes a whole lot,” said Johnson, who co-chaired a legislative interim working group that held hearings on Idaho’s existing faith-healing exemption, “other than it moves a bunch of words and sentences around.”

What we’re missing at this point is some background

Johnson said his bill restates Idaho’s current religious exemption from civil liability for child abuse or neglect as an “affirmative statement,” and clarifies some wording. It also references Idaho’s existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act, citing rights to free exercise of religion. “That is a fundamental right that applies to all parenting decisions,” Johnson said. The bill makes no changes to Idaho’s criminal laws.
Then follows a number of quotes from people who oppose the bill, including a county sheriff who says he’s had a handful of child deaths in the past four months due to parents not giving their offspring medical care.

A group called Followers of Christ is identified, but we’re not told anything about them. A woman who grew up in this group but now opposes them was also quoted along with a member of FoC. Two politicians are quoted, along with a person from Protect Idaho Kids Foundation, which helps the story move along –- to a point.

But we’re given so little background about the bill that I still couldn’t figure out what was going on after two readings. Thus, I looked around and found a helpful piece that appeared in the Boise Weekly a year ago. It said in part:

Idaho is one of a handful of states that allows a complete religious exemption from the obligation to provide a child medical care, even if it results in death. The laws effectively create a religious defense against manslaughter because "criminal injury to a child" cannot be charged in cases of religion-based medical
The Idaho Legislature passed its religious exemption laws in a no-fuss 1972 session. The bill was one of several enacted across the nation in quick succession thanks to pressure from Washington, D.C. It stemmed from two powerful Christian Scientist aides within the Nixon Administration, H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, who pushed religious exemptions into the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act…

OK, that was helpful. I also found a 2015 article from Al Jazeera that explained why Idahoans believe as they do. 

Also, my co-GetReligionista Mark Kellner reminds me that the Christian Science movement helped get these religious exemption laws passed way back when. A national spokesman for Christian Science is from Idaho. And tmatt has written about holes in coverage of faith healers in Pennsylvania, so the Spokane paper is not alone in coming up short. 

As it turns out, the bill died later Tuesday in the state Senate and a cogent piece by the Associated Press and an Idaho TV outlet explains why. The Boise Weekly also offered its take on it. 

I appreciate the Spokesman-Review for covering a religious issue but it would have been helpful to have notified us that more children die in Idaho than any other state of sicknesses that could have been cured by medical help, but weren’t because of religious reasons. 

I’m also interested if it’s just the FoC who are the main villains in this story or are there any Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Scientists around who have similar views on medical treatment. According to a public radio station out of Boise State University, Idaho and Virginia are the only states with faith healing exemptions for neglect and abuse and manslaughter laws.

Personally, the whole thing puzzles me. I’ve spent several years researching Pentecostal serpent handlers in Appalachia and although they believe in God’s healing power, they also believe that you have to be at least 18 years old to refuse medical help, should you get bit by a venomous snake. No one younger than that is allowed to handle the deadly reptiles and yes, these believers take their kids to the doctor. I am curious why these Idahoans see things differently.

If you're interested in hearing more, will give you some background (one of their photos is featured on this site) as will I did not find a site defending faith healers but the Oregonian had plenty of coverage two weeks ago about the FoC in that state.  The Portland newspaper has been following this group for at least 20 years.

I wish the Spokane paper had given us some of these details. Just know as journalists, that when it comes to reporting on complex religion-and-the-law topics, no amount of explanation is too little.  



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