- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The governor said Thursday he is concerned with the number of children who die in Idaho because their parents choose faith healing for religious reasons over medical assistance.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said he has asked state House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill to form a committee to study the issue in the next few months.

The Republican governor believes the state can find a balance that protects children and supports religious freedom.

“At what point does that become child neglect or abuse is a question I can’t answer,” Otter said. “I think everybody cares about the health of children, but we have to understand the No. 1 thing in the First Amendment was freedom religion.”

Idaho’s faith-healing exemption allows families to cite religious reasons for medical decisions without fear of being charged with neglect or abuse.

The exemption has attracted criticism over the years amid 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.

“It’s not faith healing, it’s child abuse,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche of Lewiston. “I think Gov. Otter is seeing this as significant problem, but we don’t need a working group to see that.”

Those concerns, however, have yet to result in action by the Idaho Legislature because many Republican lawmakers are leery of impeding on religious rights.

In 2015, a working group appointed by the governor 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 working group, however, did not recommend any sweeping changes, explaining that “because members are supportive of religious freedom, they recommend that the standard for state intervention be limited in scope.”

Otter cited the work of the group along with increased legislative interest as a reason he was calling for more review of the issue.

The state does not compile comprehensive figures on child deaths related to the religious exemption.

Earlier this year, Democratic Rep. John Gannon of Boise announced he was reviving his efforts to revise the exemption. Gannon was given tentative approval for an initial hearing before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee but no date has been set.

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