At what point does the physical discipline of a child by a parent become "child abuse"? This difficult question was addressed in a recent South Carolina case. A father beat his 13-year old daughter with a belt, and hit her on the face with his hand (while wearing a large college ring).
Five days later, the girl had large purple bruises covering most of the back of her legs and thighs, as well as a bruise on her face. The father felt that the beating was a proper exercise of parental discipline (his daughter allegedly told a lie), that it was a reasonable use of force, and that it was protected by the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. He cited Proverbs 23:13-14: "Withhold not correction from the child; for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die."
The court concluded that the beating constituted child abuse, and that it was not excused on the grounds of either reasonableness or religion. The court acknowledged that "reasonable" physical discipline is permitted, but concluded that the beating in question was excessive. With regard to the claim that the Bible justified the beating, the court observed that the Bible also pronounces the death penalty on disobedient children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)—a claim that the parents clearly did not espouse.
The court further noted that "the law can regulate how people act, even if how they act is based on what they believe. If the law were otherwise, a Fundamental Mormon could have multiple wives, a Jehovah's Witness could withhold medical care form his child and a modern-day adherent of an early easter religion could drown a virgin bride to appease a river god. Indeed, if the law were otherwise, the father in this case could beat his daughter into submission.
Decisions of the United States Supreme Court have denied constitutional protection to the former practices. By our own decision in this case, we deny constitutional protection to the latter." The court left the girl in her parents' home, subject to "protective services." "We believe," concluded the court, "the mother and father can, if they will, learn to express their love in better ways, and the child can, if she will, learn to obey her parents—a requirement, coincidentally, of both the Bible and the law." Department of Social Services v. Father and Mother, 366 S.E.2d 40 (S.C. App. 1988)