Idahoans pray ‘change will come’ with faith-healing exemptions

February 2, 2019

BOISE — Last year, opponents of Idaho’s faith healing exemptions marched to the Idaho Statehouse carrying 183 child-sized coffins, meant to represent the children who have reportedly died from medical neglect.

This year, it was a smaller and more somber affair. Instead of marching en masse through downtown Boise, a few dozen people gathered in the rotunda of the Capitol Thursday night for an interfaith prayer vigil. Rather than carrying coffins to represent the children who died, 36 teddy bears circled the rotunda to represent those advocates estimate will die in the next decade if the law stays the same.

“The coffins were controversial, and some people were turned off by it,” said Bruce Wingate with Protect Idaho Kids, a nonprofit advocacy group. “We don’t want to throw people off. We have a hard enough time getting people.”

Over the last few years, Protect Idaho Kids has participated in several efforts to repeal immunity in Idaho law for religious groups — like the Canyon County-based Followers of Christ church — who deny children medical care based on their beliefs. However, the nonprofit has struggled to maintain widespread public or legislative support for their cause in a state that values religious freedom and abhors government overreach.

Past bills attempting to change or repeal the religious exemptions have been voted down or have died in committee. Idaho lawmakers have resisted removing the exemption because they don’t want to step on religious freedoms or parental rights.

Wingate — who resigned as Protect Idaho Kids’ leader last year but quickly rejoined the effort — has expressed frustration over the lack of support or interest from the Treasure Valley’s varied religious groups and churches. Some, he thinks don’t pay attention because the issue is largely in Canyon County — not in their backyards. Others don’t want the state in the business of separating families, especially over religious beliefs.

“If the child dies, is that separation or not?” Wingate said. “That’s a permanent separation.”

Just two leaders from local churches — Pastor Gretchen Bingea of Immanuel Lutheran Church and Rev. Andrew Kukla of First Presbyterian Church Boise — led the vigil, which included readings from Christian, Islamic and Baha’i traditions. Boise High School students Audrey Wechsler and Mya Wilber led the group in Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” with new lyrics.

“Protect the children, give them care,” Wechsler and Wilber sang. “They need protection, not despair.”

This year, advocates are attempting to modify the exemption instead of repeal it. The draft bill floating through Idaho Legislature this year amends Idaho’s current religious exemption protecting parents from civil or criminal prosecution so it doesn’t apply if the child is at risk of serious injury or death.

Wingate said advocates are moving quickly to get the bill a sponsor, worried yet another session will end before lawmakers get a chance to debate the issue. The looming presidential election year would make it even more difficult to get people to pay attention.

“This is the third vigil I’ve been a part of,” Bingea told the group. “I hope we don’t have to do another one — and change will come.”

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