Caskets on Statehouse Steps Underline Idaho Faith Healing Debate 

"Adults should be held criminally liable when they fail to seek medical help for seriously ailing children."

It's not as though both sides of the issue didn't know it was coming. Still, the sight of around 100 protesters carrying tiny wooden coffins up Capitol Boulevard on Feb. 19 was unsettling. When the emblematic procession reached the steps of the Statehouse, a U-Haul truck pulled up behind them and dozens more coffins were unloaded. In total, 183 coffins were stacked on the steps, each representing an Idaho infant, child or teen that, according to nonprofit organization Protect Idaho Kids, has died since faith-healing exemptions were enacted in Idaho in the 1970s. According to its website, Protect Idaho Kids is "conducting an extensive campaign called 'Let Them Live' to raise awareness of the need to repeal Idaho's religious exemptions."

Willie Hughes, a local truck driver, looked at the coffin bearing the name of his brother Steven, who died of bronchial pneumonia at age 3. Hughes and his family were members of Followers of Christ, a church that practices faith healing and believes death and illness are the will of God.

"My brother Steven was born with spina bifida. Our parents never took Steven to a doctor," said Hughes. "Steven got very sick when he was three, and the elders prayed and rubbed olive oil on him. He passed away that night."

Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue is familiar with the Followers. The church has one of its strongest followings in his county.

"Adults should be held criminally liable when they fail to seek medical help for seriously ailing children," Donahue told the gathering, which attracted the media and more than a few curious bystanders. However, inside the Idaho Statehouse, there has been no movement on a proposed piece of legislation, drafted by Rep. John Gannon (D-Boise), to revoke the exemptions.

"We'll continue to fight. This is not going to go away until the legislature does its duty and repeals these laws," said Protect Idaho Kids founder Bruce Wingate after the protest. "We can, and we will prevail."

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