Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

Written by Don Byrd

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is back in the news. This time, a defendant, citing “spare the rod” Bible verses, has reportedly presented a religious freedom defense under RFRA to charges that she violated child abuse laws by beating her 7-year-old son dozens of times with a coat hanger, leaving bruises that alarmed school officials.

In recent years, RFRA laws and proposals have been the source of misinformation and hyperbole from both advocates and opponents. Some have mis-characterized RFRA as a get-out-of-jail card that allows claims of religious freedom to trump laws and regulations. I have no doubt they would point to this case as an example of what is wrong with RFRA. But that reading of the law is off the mark. RFRA merely sets a judicial standard for balancing claims of religious freedom against government’s interest in enforcing its laws; it does not dictate the outcome. And one consideration seems very clear: protecting the safety and welfare of children is a compelling government interest.

That is why the Massachusetts Supreme Court, earlier this year, rejected the religious freedom claims of a couple whose foster care application was denied because they engage in corporal punishment with their own children. While that state has not enacted a RFRA law, religious freedom is protected by the state’s constitution using the same standard associated with RFRA: government may not substantially burden a person’s religious exercise unless necessary to achieve a compelling government interest. Enforcing the law related to corporal punishment is in fact necessary, the court ruled, to achieve the government’s compelling interest of protecting the welfare of foster children. 

Here is an excerpt from the court’s ruling in that case:

We conclude that, by conditioning the Magazus’ opportunity to become foster parents on their willingness to forsake a sincerely held religious belief, the department has substantially burdened the Magazus’ constitutional right under art. 46, § 1, of the Amendments to the free exercise of religion. That being the case, we proceed to consider whether the department has demonstrated a sufficiently compelling interest to justify this burden. 

“It cannot be disputed that the State has a compelling interest to protect children from actual or potential harm.” This is especially true with respect to foster children whose need for safety, security, and stability is readily apparent. Consistent with this compelling State interest, the department has determined that a foster child should not be placed in a home where corporal punishment is used as a disciplinary measure. Creating an exception to this policy for individuals like the Magazus who employ physical discipline in conformity with their religious beliefs would severely undermine the department’s substantial interest in protecting the physical and emotional well-being of children whose welfare has been entrusted to the department’s care. Moreover, expecting the department to place with the Magazus children who have not suffered neglect or abuse is neither realistic nor feasible given the type of children served by the department and the potential dearth of information concerning the precise nature and scope of their prior trauma. Based on the department’s compelling interest in protecting the welfare of foster children, we conclude that its prohibition against the use of corporal punishment in a foster home outweighs the burden on the Magazus’ right to employ physical discipline in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Obviously, the law related to corporal punishment of one’s biological children may be different in Indiana than the Massachusetts law regarding foster children. Either way, the outcome in the Indiana case will turn on whether or not the defendant’s apparent disciplinary practice in the case violated the state’s child abuse laws with respect to parental corporal punishment. It will not turn on her RFRA claim, because protecting the welfare of children is a quintessential compelling government interest.  (As the BJC’s Holly Hollman wrote last year about parental requests for exemption from vaccination requirements, “In cases involving the health of children, the government’s interest is one of the highest order, not easily susceptible to challenge.”)

In other words, if it is determined that the defendant’s actions violated child welfare laws (and a legal opinion about that question is beyond the scope of this blog and my knowledge of Indiana law), RFRA will almost certainly not help her.

For more on RFRA generally, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s RFRA Resource Page.