In counting my blessings at Thanksgiving, good health was at the top of my list. In January I learned I had pancreatic cancer, but it is now in remission thanks to the talented doctors at the Mountain States Tumor Institute. Dr. Akshay Gupta diagnosed it, Dr. Joshua Barton skillfully removed the cancerous tissue, and Dr. Dan Zuckerman finished off the cancer with the help of the MSTI staff. We are lucky to have such highly skilled medical practitioners in our fair state.
Unfortunately, some of our most vulnerable citizens are not able to share in the blessing of good medical care. Young children of the Followers of Christ, mostly in Canyon County, are denied necessary medical treatment because of their parents’ religious practices. Idaho law exempts faith-healing parents from two statutes prohibiting neglect or endangerment of their children. Section 18-1501 of the Idaho Code prohibits conduct that is likely to endanger the life or health of a child. Section 18-401 prohibits the denial of necessary medical care to children.
However, there is an exemption in both statutes that has allowed these parents to refuse to provide readily available medical care to their children, resulting in needless suffering and death. The exemption says that the “practice of a parent or guardian who chooses for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to have violated the duty of care of such child.” This awkward language should be eliminated from both statutes in order to protect the helpless children of faith healers.
Adults can decide for themselves on healthcare matters. If they decide to forego medical intervention for themselves for religious reasons, that is their prerogative. The state has an interest, however, in safeguarding the health and safety of minor children, who cannot decide for themselves. Our laws have numerous protections for children that do not contain religious exemptions--marital age, child labor, ability to contract, and the like. The right to have basic life-saving healthcare trumps all of those protections.
Article I, section 4 of the Idaho Constitution guarantees religious liberty for Idaho citizens. However, it mandates a strict separation of church and state, more so than the U.S. Constitution. Among other things, it flatly states that no preference shall “be given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship.”
The statutes purporting to exempt faith-healing parents from child-protection laws certainly appear to violate this constitutional provision. The great majority of Idaho citizens who do not advocate or practice faith healing are subject to criminal penalties under Idaho Code sections 18-1501 and 18-401 for endangering the health of their children. Yet, those same statutes provide a specific legal preference for faith-healing parents by giving them the right to deprive their children of medical care.
During the last several decades, the Legislature has passed numerous statutes intended to support the right to life by using the power of the government to require women to carry a fetus to term. None of those measures contained a religious exemption. The question arises as to whether the right to life of some children in Idaho ceases upon birth. It is time for the Legislature to stand up for our children and to require faith-healing parents to provide basic healthcare to their children. Tell legislators it is morally and legally wrong to allow parents to deprive their children of life-saving medical care.
Jim Jones is a former Idaho Supreme Court chief justice and a former Idaho attorney general.