Idaho’s faith-healing exemption dates to 1972. The year before, the Legislature approved a top-to-bottom rewrite of state penal code, adopting changes recommended under a model advocated by a national legal group seeking to standardize and modernize American laws.
Among other changes, the new code that took effect in January 1972 decriminalized consensual gay sex. That produced an immediate citizen backlash. In the 1972 session, legislators quickly moved to amend parts of the new code. But so many amendments were proposed that lawmakers opted instead for full-scale repeal, driven mostly by the uproar over the gay sex issue. They dumped the new code and reinstated the old one, with immediate effect.
In that same session, after the old code was reinstated, an amendment to laws on family abandonment and nonsupport passed through the House and Senate without debate. The change removed penalties for withholding medical assistance in cases where a parent or guardian “chooses for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone.”
That specific language is boilerplate Christian Science terminology, as the advocacy group Idaho Children notes. In fact, the state Bar Association referred to it as the Christian Science amendment. Two years later, Christian Scientists were involved in creating similar exempting language in federal child abuse protection statute. The 1974 Child Abuse and Prevention and Treatment Act included a provision, reportedly added by Nixon White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, both Christian Scientists, requiring states to enact faith-healing or “spiritual treatment” exemptions to receive federal funds for anti-child abuse programs. Founded in 1879, the church has moderated from its onetime outright rejection of modern medicine and now is said to let members choose for themselves.
In response to the federal law, Idaho enacted three additional changes in 1976 and 1977. State code thus has four provisions involving the exemption: in civil code regarding neglect and emergency treatment in child protection cases; and in criminal code regarding family abandonment and injury to children.
After lobbying, the federal government eliminated the requirement in 1983. Several states have followed suit. Oregon did so in 2011. Idaho has not and remains one of six states with what amounts to a religious defense for child manslaughter, even capital murder, in its code.
Rep. John Gannon, a Boise Democrat, has twice sponsored bills that address one of the criminal code exemptions, in 2014 and again this year. Advocates say this year’s effort was slated for a Senate hearing, although the committee chairman, Lee Heider of Twin Falls, later disputed that. The facts are in question, and Heider came under fire for his handling of the issue and his defense of the exemption on First Amendment grounds.