Is the Bible a defense for corporal punishment of children?

For the first time since the law's enactment last year, a parent cited Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act to justify the severe corporal punishment of her child. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Still life of the Bible, taken on October 1, 2013 in Hingham, Mass.

A mother from Indiana has been charged with felony counts of battery and neglect after prosecutors say she took corporal punishment too far.

The story behind the case is not uncommon: According to a probable cause affidavit, Kin Park Thaing hit her 7-year-old son multiple times with a coat hanger to punish him for what she deemed inappropriate behavior, resulting in 36 bruises across the boy's back, arm, and thigh, and a loop mark on his ear from the hook of the hanger. But what set Ms. Thaing's trial apart is the law she used to defend her actions: Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Her attorney's motion to dismiss the charges, filed in July, said Thaing's Christian beliefs were her "guiding values" when she beat her son in February and included verses from Proverbs 23:13-14: "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol," The Indianapolis Star reports. It was the first time Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was enacted last year, has been used to defend corporally punishing a child, said Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry.

In Indiana and other states, the laws surrounding corporal punishment state that parents can physically discipline their children as long as the methods are deemed "reasonable" and don't cause severe harm to the child. Legal experts and religious freedom advocates across the board agreed that the severity of the injuries Thaing inflicted qualified the punishment as unreasonable.

But Indiana's religious freedom law could in theory be used to justify a more reasonable form of physical discipline, said Mathew Staver, founder of the Liberty Counsel law firm, a Christian legal nonprofit based in Orlando, Fla., that advocates for religious freedom. Of course, "you have to have some kind of limitations on the extent to which corporal punishment is administered," he told The Washington Post.

While the legal definition of child abuse in the United States has expanded greatly in recent decades, some more mild forms of corporal punishment, such as spanking or hitting with a belt, have been, and continue to be, widely utilized by parents aiming to teach their children a lesson. But even "reasonable" forms of corporal punishment have come under fire in recent years.

As Stephanie Hanes reported for The Christian Science Monitor in 2014, shortly after NFL running back Adrian Peterson was arrested on child abuse charges for disciplining his 4-year-old son with a "whupping": 

Swirling around every spank or paddle are questions about the line between discipline and abuse, the proper way to use physical punishment, intentions versus actions, outcomes versus causes. And they are questions that lead directly to some of the deepest fissures in US society...

From the macro data, it seems that corporal punishment is becoming less popular in the United States. Evaluating numerous national surveys taken over the past decades, Murray Straus, an expert on corporal punishment at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, found that the number of parents who say spanking is sometimes necessary dropped from more than 90 percent in 1968 to about 65 or 70 percent in 1994, and then has remained fairly steady through today. Researchers have found that the number of parents who use corporal punishment has also decreased. 

But while corporal punishment in the US is noticeably on the decline, the numbers are still relatively high, with most research concluding that about 65 to 85 percent of parents have used it as a disciplinary measure. 

Spanking is still legal in all 50 states, though there is still some legal gray area surrounding the practice – especially when it comes to religious beliefs. In January, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that a Massachusetts couple could not take in foster children due to the fact that the couple used "reasonable" corporal punishment on their own biological children. Though the couple had done nothing illegal in spanking their own children, experts said, exposure to such situations could trigger trauma in foster children escaping abusive situations. 

In that case, the Magazu family, like Thaing, argued that the Bible condones the use of corporal punishment, citing Proverbs 13:24: "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes diligently."

"Although the department’s decision imposes a substantial burden on the Magazus’ sincerely held religious beliefs, this burden is outweighed by the department’s compelling interest in protecting the physical and emotional well-being of foster children," wrote Justice Francis Spina in the ruling. "To the extent that the department may have infringed on the Magazus' constitutional rights, such infringement is on their freedom to act, not on their freedom to believe."

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