Indiana took a national public relations mauling and lost up to $85 million in convention venues when it legalized “religious freedom” last year.
Now, an innocuous criminal trial of an Indianapolis mother charged with felony child abuse packs the potential to twist religious freedom into a dreadful and dangerous weapon. And the state’s gay children and adults may be the most vulnerable targets considering that the intent of religious freedom is to refuse public services to LGBTQ people. The law in Indiana also protects religious objectors whose private beliefs are offended by gay people from being sued successfully and from disciplinary action by their employers.
Despite rhetoric by political conservatives and religious extremists who defend their “right” to discriminate against gays based on religious beliefs, religious freedom—also dubbed religious liberty and religious exemption—is to gay people what Jim Crow is to African Americans. It institutionalizes and legalizes overt discrimination against LGBT people who, in turn, are denied a legal recourse for protection and justice.
The child abuse case in Indiana is believed to be the first in which religious freedom has been invoked as a defense in a criminal proceeding. The mother, Kin Park Thaing, 30, a Burmese refugee granted political asylum in the United States, is charged with felony child abuse after repeatedly hitting her 7-year-old son with a coat hanger and inflicting no less than 36 bruises and other injuries. The child’s injuries were documented at a hospital after a school reported them to Child Protective Services.
Both the child and a 3-year-old sister were removed from their mother’s home—and because child protection records in Indiana are closed to protect juvenile victims from identification—presumably were placed in foster care. Their mother is charged with felony battery and felony neglect with battery carrying a prison sentence of one to ten years and neglect a sentence of six months to two and a half years.
The Indianapolis Star, the state’s largest circulation newspaper, reported that the mother, at a preliminary hearing, cited Indiana’s religious freedom law as a defense and said her choice of discipline is rooted in evangelical Christian beliefs. She also quoted scripture in court documents: “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” and “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die …”
Indiana’s religious freedom law, formally named the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, prevents the state from intruding on a person’s religious beliefs unless it can prove “a compelling interest” but, when it does intrude, must do so “in the least restrictive way.” One law expert interviewed by the newspaper said the case might be further complicated by an Indiana Supreme Court decision that allows parents to use cords and belts to punish their children.
The mother, whose motion for dismissal of the charges against her was denied Aug. 18, faces a trial date of Oct. 19. Other potential outcomes would prevent the case from going to trial, however. The mother could plead guilty as charged or to lesser charges in a plea bargain, or she could escape legal sanctions altogether if the prosecutor in the case drops the charges for whatever reason.
A potential worst-case scenario, at least for Indiana’s gay population, would be the mother going to trial and being acquitted by either a judge or jury based on a successful religious freedom defense. The possible implications for gay people are nothing less than terrifying.
A court verdict that a parent can beat his or her child to the extent of visible injury and claim religious “rights” could easily be extended to defend a gay-basher from assault and even murder charges if a victim is gay or perceived to be gay. Likewise, an anti-gay business owner could be defended for using physical violence against a customer suspected of being gay.
On a civil court level, religious freedom could be invoked in defense of gay conversion therapy, the barbaric “deprogramming” of gay children whose parents want heterosexual kids. Attorneys for a gay conversion clinic that is threatened with closure could argue that the religious “rights” of clinic staff and client-parents are violated if they are denied access to “therapeutic” services for their children.
The newspaper story on the child abuse case focused on state child abuse laws and the “cultural differences” between the mother’s home country and the United States and different perceptions of child abuse. It did not speculate, perhaps rightly so, on the potential impact of a successful “religious freedom” defense in a case of criminal violence. But speculation might be warranted, especially by members of the LGBTQ community and their allies.
The child abuse case, its potential outcomes and their broad implications—at their core—require an answer to the question of the intent and limits of religious freedom. Probably few people would disagree that everyone should be allowed their personal religions and belief systems. Fewer would disagree that anyone should be targeted for discrimination and social and institutional exclusion because of their beliefs.
Those belief systems, however, abandon both religious and Christian principles when they are twisted into legally accepted methods of discrimination and physical violence against children and LGBTQ people. And people who believe their “rights” allow them to inflict injury on anyone else deserve to be called what they are: religious extremists and terrorists.
We as a collective people expect and can do better.
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