Most legislators agree child abuse should be reported, but they don't agree on how far state law should go in making churches report it.
House members debated the issue for nearly three hours Thursday, voting down two amendments to a bill that would add clergy members to the categories of employees who must report suspected child abuse and neglect.
They're scheduled to vote on House Bill 92 on Friday.
"This is a tremendously sensitive, complicated issue," said Rep. Sharon Cissna, an Anchorage Democrat.
Rep. Bob Lynn, an Anchorage Republican, introduced the bill in response to media reports of sexual abuse by clergy, but some House members think the current version of the bill goes too far.
Rep. Paul Seaton, a Republican from Homer, tried to remove a requirement that clergy report neglect. He said what is considered neglect in some places would not be in others, and requiring clergy to report it could strain the relationship between ministers and their communities.
"I think we drastically change the relationship of people going out into communities to minister," Seaton said.
But Republican Rep. Lesil McGuire of Anchorage argued state law clearly defines neglect, and it should be reported.
"The goal is to report as much child abuse as we possibly can," McGuire said. "That is good for society."
Seaton's amendment failed on an 29-8 vote. Supporting it were Reps. Tom Anderson, Mike Chenault, Cissna, John Coghill, Hugh Fate, Jim Holm, Seaton and Bruce Weyhrauch.
Rep. Max Gruenberg, an Anchorage Democrat, also tried to change the bill to loosen the requirements.
He wanted to exempt clergy members from having to report information heard in confidence that the person did not want to be disclosed.
The bill provides a narrower exception. It allows clergy to keep information private only if they were told it in a context "that places the clergy member specifically and strictly under a level of confidentiality that is considered inviolate by religious doctrine." That would include a setting like Roman Catholic confession.
But some feared that would not cover traditionally confidential communications in other faiths. Anderson, a Republican from Anchorage, said a pastor from his district, the Rev. Jerry Prevo, worried it would compromise the integrity of ministerial counseling.
Prevo, pastor of Anchorage Baptist Temple, said his denomination does not have written church law spelling out when conversations are confidential as the Catholic faith does, so he would have to report abuse he learns about in a counseling session. He said that could discourage parishioners from seeking help.
Lynn, the bill's sponsor, argued against the proposed amendment.
"I believe it takes the teeth out of what we're trying to accomplish here. We have to keep our eyes on the target here, and the target is to protect our children," Lynn said.
Gruenberg's amendment failed 29-8. Supporting it were Anderson, Ethan Berkowitz, Cissna, Gruenberg, Holm, Pete Kott, Seaton and Weyhrauch.
If the bill passes the House today, it will have to go through the Senate.