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Mother Abuses 7-Year Old Son & Claims Indiana’s Religious Freedom Law as Defense

The breadth of using religious freedom as a justification for bad behavior has reached a whole new level. An Indianapolis woman abused her 7-year-old son with a coat hanger and is now claiming Indiana’s religious freedom law as a defense.

Kin Park Thaing was arrested and charged with felony child abuse and neglect of her son after his school teacher found red welts on the child’s back. The teacher contacted police and child welfare officials, after which the boy was taken to a local hospital. The examining doctor found 36 bruises and welts across the boy’s back, thigh, and left arm, as well as a curved bruise in the shape of a coat hanger across his cheek.

Thaing claims she was only stopping her son from dangerous behavior he was exhibiting towards his younger sister. According to court documents, her son could have seriously harmed his sister and she was, “worried for my son’s salvation with God after he dies.” Thaing further went on to state, “I decided to punish my son to prevent him from hurting my daughter and to help him learn how to behave as God would want him to.”

Court documents cited scripture, arguing that a parent who “spares the rod, spoils the child.”

The judge, however, wasn’t buying it and refused to dismiss the felony charges against the mother. Thaing is set for trial in October.

What is the RFRA and How in the World Can It Be Use as A Defense?

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a law that allows individuals and companies the right to assert their free exercise of religion when it is, or may be, substantially burdened. RFRA gained national attention when many critics argued it was a masked license to discriminate against the LGBT community.

Thaing’s attorney, however, argues that the RFRA gives the mother the right to discipline her children according to her beliefs and that the state shouldn’t interfere with her fundamental right to raise her children as she deems appropriate.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, argue the abuse went beyond religious instruction, went beyond what most parents would consider reasonable, and that, regardless, Indiana has a compelling enough interest to protect a child from abuse to outweigh Thaing’s religious right.

Argues Religious Freedom Allows Her the Right to Discipline How She Pleases

Discipline, yes. Abuse, no.  This is definitely a tricky area because, yes, parents should be allowed to discipline their children without interference. At the same time though, where do you draw the line between discipline and abuse?  It’s a slippery slope and one Indiana has already partially answered.

In 2008, the Indiana Supreme Court gave wide latitude to parents in Willis v. State of Indiana to discipline their kids when they overturned a felony conviction of a mother who used a belt or electrical cord to discipline her 11-year-old son.  Unlike Thaing’s case, no religious defense was claimed.  Instead, the court ruled that the child was struck in areas where corporal punishment was usually inflicted and, since it left no permanent damage, this particular form of discipline met the “reasonable” standard.

So, permanent damage appears to be the standard, at least in Indiana, and that leaves a lot of wiggle room for pushing the envelope between discipline and abuse. Bruises and welts certainly don’t leave permanent damage but, again, at what point do we draw the line?  Pictures of the boy’s back have been released and it’s not pretty.

Religious and Cultural Differences Once Again Make Their Way into Our Courts

Thaing’s attorneys are arguing that, as a Burmese refugee, Thaing’s failure to understand the law is merely a cultural difference and many are hoping the court will consider these differences on parenting. However, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen religion cited as a reason for actions that we would consider criminal.

In 2010, although eventually overturned, a New Jersey judge refused to grant a woman who was raped and sexually abused by her husband a restraining order because the husband’s actions aligned with his Muslim beliefs.

A good number of states are, however, against recognizing any kind of foreign or religious law into our legal system. Several states have passed legislation banning foreign and religious laws, regardless of whether or not it would permit something already legal.

In 2012, a jury refused to recognize a mahr agreement made between a woman and her husband, which entitled her to $677,000, simply because a Kansas law prohibited the application of foreign law.

Cultural and religious beliefs should be taken into consideration when determining whether there’s any malicious intent, but it shouldn’t outweigh or negate what our laws consider criminal, which leads us back to the standard that were set in the 2008 Willis decision.  If the punishment is reasonable and there’s no malicious intent, then a parent is probably within their rights.

That’s ultimately what a jury will be left to consider—a reasonableness standard. Spanking is one thing, but 36 severe bruises and welts?

Ashley Roncevic

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