Sunday, September 4, 2016

Not Religious Freedom

When Indiana passed its state-level version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, opponents of the act argued that it could have all sorts of unintended consequences. They managed to have the law amended in such a way that it did not allow discrimination, but beyond that the law was left as is. Now an Indiana woman is arguing before the court that the her "religious freedom" includes her right to beat her child.

Kin Park Thaing, an Indianapolis resident, is hoping to use the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as a defense to charges of child abuse. She was charged with battery and neglect of a dependent after her seven-year-old son’s teacher discovered 36 deep welts and bruises on his body in February. She hit him with a plastic hanger, saying she acted on her religious beliefs to punish him.

The Indiana RFRA, signed into law by vice-presidential hopeful Gov. Mike Pence just last year, generated enormous national controversy. Most of the outrage was based on the fact that it was aimed at allowing discrimination against LGBT people. At the same time, though, the county prosecutor warned that RFRA could be used in cases like these. This week he explained, "We predicted this was exactly was going to happen, is individuals would assert their religious freedom to justify what is clearly criminal conduct.”

In July, Thaing’s attorney asked the court to dismiss her case, citing RFRA as one reason. The judge denied her request and the case will go to trial in October.

This was obviously the right decision on the part of the judge, since I don't think anyone really wants to argue that child abuse can be protected on religious freedom groups. Protecting children from abuse should clearly qualify as an example of a "compelling government interest" under the law and therefore not be subject to the RFRA.

However, it is notable that nothing in the act explicitly states that it cannot be applied to criminal cases. That would seem to be a logical fix that the Indiana legislature should make to prevent these sorts of situations from coming up in the future.

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