Religious Beliefs No Excuse for Child Abuse, Court Rules

Court rejects First Amendment violation argument.

Church Law and Tax 1996-05-01

Child Abuse

Key point. The extreme or unreasonable physical discipline of a child by a parent may constitute child abuse.

The Vermont Supreme Court ruled that a father’s religious beliefs did not excuse his acts of child abuse. A husband and father engaged in extreme outbursts of rage and cruelty, which often were targeted directly at his minor children. A trial court later determined that the father had engaged in multiple acts of abuse of his children, including pouring coffee down the back of one child, throwing a rock at another child, and striking his children with paddles, fireplace pokers, and straps. The father defended his actions on the grounds that he was a Jehovah’s Witness, and that his religion taught adherence to the biblical principle of “spare the rod, spoil the child.” The father stated that “based on the scripture … discipline is something that the Creator expects parents to do,” and accordingly he could not be penalized for doing it. The state supreme court disagreed, noting that to state a claim under the first amendment’s free exercise of religion clause a person must show that the government is interfering with conduct “motivated by a sincerely held religious belief” that is “unduly and substantially burdened.” The court concluded that the father’s vague references to the Bible to defend his actions were not sufficient to state a claim of a violation of his constitutional rights. It observed: “The [evidence] does not establish a clear relationship between the religious faith of a Jehovah’s Witness and physical discipline of children, nor does it show that [the father’s] religious beliefs required him to hit his children with a paddle, a fireplace poker or a strap ….” Jakab v. Jakab, 664 A.2d 261 (Vt. 1995). [ The Free Exercise Clause]

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