FAQs on Religious Exemptions

What are “religious exemptions” and how do they affect children in Idaho? In 1972, all states enacted religious exemptions in their criminal and civil statutes as a way to receive federal funding. (Federal funding is not tied to religious exemptions today.) The wording of these exemptions varies by state, but those that relate to medical neglect essentially prevent parents or guardians from being prosecuted if they deny their children needed medical care for religious reasons. Because these exemptions also commonly appear in civil statutes, child welfare agencies may not investigate households in which a child is denied needed medical care for religious reasons.

How are Idaho’s religious exemptions different than those in other states? A handful of states have completely repealed their religious exemptions, often following high-profile child deaths. Exemptions that still exist in most states largely only apply in cases in which a child has not been gravely harmed. For example, a prosecutor might be prevented from charging a parent with child endangerment. Idaho, on the other hand, is one of 6 states that has an exemption against manslaughter. This means a parent may not be charged with neglecting a child’s health even if the child dies.

Have children died in Idaho due to this type of medical neglect? Sadly, yes. It’s been estimated that at least 12 children have died under these circumstances since 2011. And however tragic these cases are, there is next to no documentation on other children who have survived but have suffered long-term pain, illness, and disability.

What reasons do people give for keeping these exemptions in place? Supporters of religious exemptions see this as a religious freedom issue. They believe it’s wrong for the state to require parents to provide their children medical care if those parents believe in only trying to treat illness with prayer or other religious rituals, even if denying medical care seriously threatens the health and life of that child. Some see taking these rights from parents as the beginning of a “slippery slope” to imposing additional child-rearing requirements.

What reasons to do people give for changing the laws? Opponents of religious exemptions see the issue as one of child protection. While they believe religious rights are important, they aksi believe such rights should be limited so that no adult is permitted to deny a child necessary medical care. People who oppose religious exemptions believe all children in Idaho should be equally protected from medical neglect, regardless of the religious beliefs of their caretakers.

If Idaho were to get rid of its religious exemptions, would parents be denied the right to pray over their children when they get sick? That would not be the case at all. Many people of faith who rely on medical care when their children are sick also incorporate prayer with those treatments. Many doctors are people of faith and believe in the power of prayer. Changing the laws in Idaho would not prevent people from turning to spiritual practices, it would only prevent them from relying only on those spiritual practices when a child is very ill.

Does Idaho have the right to “force” any parent to provide his or her child medical care? For the most part, yes. Parents or guardians who do not claim that they believe solely in the power of prayer or “faith healing” are required to provide their children needed medical care. If they do not, they can be prosecuted and child welfare agencies and the courts may step in to ensure that a sick child is medically treated.

What about the “freedom of religion” argument? And should government be allowed to tell parents how to raise their kids? Most states, including Idaho, place strict limits on what government can or can’t do when it comes to childrearing requirements. Except in these narrow applications where parents or guardians have strict beliefs about the healing power of prayer, governmental agencies are mandated to protect all children from abuse and neglect. For example, a parent cannot neglect a child’s educational needs, even if it goes against his or her religion. immigrants who come to Idaho must obey the laws, which can mean changing their practices so that they are not abusive or neglectful.

Doctors aren’t always right nor are they infallible, so why should we make medical care for children a requirement? While medical science doesn’t always have a solution and medical professionals can make mistakes, such problems only occur in a minuscule number of cases. That is why all parents—except those who have strict beliefs about “failing healing”—must provide their children needed medical care.

What do state officials have to say about this issue? Is anyone trying to change the laws? Last year, the Governor’s Task Force on Children on Risk published a report highlighting the need to change Idaho’s laws so that more children were protected from “refusal of medical care because of religious or personal beliefs.” A letter written by the task force to Governor Otter states, “Our First Amendment right does not include the right to abuse or neglect children”; it expresses a concern “for the well-being and protection of Idaho’s children in circumstances where children have no voice in medical choice.” This legislative session, there has been discussion of a bill that would restrict religious exemptions so that they would not apply in cases in which permanent physical harm or death is imminent.

To learn more about religious exemptions in Idaho, please click here.