Mother’s Religion No Excuse for Child Abuse, Court Rules

Father awarded custody in court case.

Church Law and Tax 1993-01-01 Recent Developments

Marriage and Divorce

The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that a mother’s religious beliefs did not excuse her excessive beatings of her minor children or prevent custody of the children from being transferred to the father. A couple was divorced, and custody of their three minor children was awarded to the mother. The father later requested the court to transfer custody of the children to himself, on account of the excessive corporal punishment inflicted by the mother. On one occasion, when one of her daughters (9 years old) was expelled from a church school, the mother gave her ten lashes with a leather belt. The mother then instructed the child to copy the definitions of “stubbornness” and “rebellion” from the dictionary, along with scriptural passages referring to rebelliousness as “a sin of witchcraft” and stubbornness as “an abomination unto the Lord.” When the child finished, the mother examined her work and found 20 error in spelling. The mother gave her one lash with the belt for each error, and then had the child rewrite the assignment. This time, the mother found 10 errors, and the child was given another 10 lashes. On her third attempt, the child made 3 mistakes, and so was given 3 lashes. On her fourth attempt, the child made no mistakes. This incident lasted nearly 5 hours, and involved 43 lashes. This daughter testified that her 5-year-old brother was given 6 lashes with the belt every day by the mother. The boy informed his father that in order for him “to learn to be good, he had to be spanked and he had to be spanked real hard.” Based on these and other incidents, a trial court ordered custody of the children to be transferred to their father. The state supreme court agreed. It rejected the mother’s claim that her first amendment right to religious freedom protected her acts of corporal punishment. It observed: “Courts have a duty to consider whether religious beliefs threaten the health and well-being of the child. Thus, when a court finds that particular religious practices pose an immediate and substantial threat to a child’s temporary well-being, a court may fashion an order aimed at protecting the child from that threat.” Peterson v. Peterson, 474 N.W.2d 862 (Neb. 1991).

See Also: The Free Exercise Clause

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