Feb 16, 2017

God, child abuse, and the limits of religious freedom in America

The Week
Jonathan Merritt
September 7, 2016

A woman in Indiana who was charged with child abuse claims that she was merely disciplining her 7-year-old son according to her evangelical Christian beliefs, and is therefore protected under Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Kihn Par Thaing allegedly beat her child with a coat hanger, leaving more than 30 bruises. As justification for her behavior, court documents cite a passage from the Old Testament book of Proverbs claiming that a parent who "spares the rod, spoils the child."

Thaing's case has gained widespread attention in a moment when the limits of religious liberty are being adjudicated nationwide. In 2014, Hobby Lobby successfully argued before the Supreme Court that privately held companies should be exempt from providing contraception to their employees if it conflicts with their sincerely held religious convictions. And last year, SCOTUS ruled that a prisoner could grow a beard in accordance with his Muslim beliefs even though it conflicts with the Arkansas Department of Corrections' regulations. Meanwhile, other appeals to "religious liberty" — such as Christian cake bakers, florists, and photographers who wish to refuse wedding services to LGBT couples — have failed.

Some conservatives speak about religious liberty as if it is the ultimate trump card. Even if the law prohibits an action or deems it discriminatory, they say, religious persons should be exempt if the law conflicts with their beliefs. Cases like Thaing's take that position to its extreme.

Does religious freedom have limits? If so, then surely child abuse exceeds those limits.

Thaing is correct that the Bible often encourages physical discipline, as in the case of the popular verse she cites. Unsurprisingly, Christians support spanking children at a higher rate than the general population.

But what is spanking? And when does it cross a line? Many parents feel a slap on the hand is acceptable, but what about a smack with a belt? What about 10 smacks? What if you use a coat hanger instead of a belt?

A literal reading of the Bible provides an astonishing amount of leeway.

Corporeal punishment in the Bible is performed with a "whip" or "rod" that smacks the back, not the buttocks, of the one being disciplined. The Christian scriptures proscribe no age limit — for example, a husband could "spank" his wife — and allows for leaving "bruises" and "wounds."

And what about the notion that a parent should wait to spank until they're calm, cool, and collected? As William Webb, professor at Tyndale Seminary and author of Corporal Punishment in the Bible, writes, "This sort of 'love but no anger' approach is a great plank within the platform of today's spanking advocates. Unfortunately, it simply is not a biblical concept."

If the allegations against Thaing are accurate and she angrily hit her son with a coat hanger dozens of times, leaving more than 30 bruises on his body, she may well have broken the law. But she could also make the case that such behavior is consistent with a literalistic interpretation of the Bible.

Plenty of Americans might counter that Thaing's interpretation of the Bible is wrong — that the Bible technically allows for spanking, but common sense and compassion mandate careful restrictions. But favoring one biblical interpretation over another is exactly the kind of logic that "religious liberty" advocates have repudiated. It doesn't matter if you think the Bible allows a baker to decorate a cake for a gay wedding. If a particular baker feels differently, then she must be excused from the law based on her interpretation of the Bible.

We could stake out the position that religious convictions must take precedence except when those convictions harm another person. But that raises the question of how we define "harm." Is it harmful to force an LGBT couple to drive two counties away just to receive basic public services or purchase goods? Is it harmful when a Christian funeral home owner fires a transgender employee on the basis of gender identity, even though she is performing all of her duties?

These are tricky questions. But Thaing's case provides at least a baseline. As Shawn Francis Peters, a University of Wisconsin professor and author ofWhen Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law, notes, religious liberty is always set aside when it conflicts with public order or the rights of minors.

"Throughout history, there have always been limits placed on religious liberty and all our constitutional freedoms," he says. "The courts have never given people unlimited religious freedoms."

The ocean of religious liberty stops at the shore of child welfare. But how far does it stretch beyond that? Only time — and lawsuits like this one — will tell.

For now, Thaing will probably end up paying a dear penalty for her religious convictions. After the Indiana mother allegedly beat her son, she instructed him to pray to ask God for forgiveness. Now, it seems, she'll likely be the one paying penance.


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