God, child abuse, and the limits of religious freedom in America


A woman in Indiana who was charged with child abuse claims that she was merely disciplining her 7-year-old son according to her evangelical Christian beliefs, and is therefore protected under Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Kihn Par Thaing allegedly beat her child with a coat hanger, leaving more than 30 bruises. As justification for her behavior, court documents cite a passage from the Old Testament book of Proverbs claiming that a parent who "spares the rod, spoils the child."

Thaing's case has gained widespread attention in a moment when the limits of religious liberty are being adjudicated nationwide. In 2014, Hobby Lobby successfully argued before the Supreme Court that privately held companies should be exempt from providing contraception to their employees if it conflicts with their sincerely held religious convictions. And last year, SCOTUS ruled that a prisoner could grow a beard in accordance with his Muslim beliefs even though it conflicts with the Arkansas Department of Corrections' regulations. Meanwhile, other appeals to "religious liberty" — such as Christian cake bakersflorists, and photographers who wish to refuse wedding services to LGBT couples — have failed.

Some conservatives speak about religious liberty as if it is the ultimate trump card. Even if the law prohibits an action or deems it discriminatory, they say, religious persons should be exempt if the law conflicts with their beliefs. Cases like Thaing's take that position to its extreme.

Does religious freedom have limits? If so, then surely child abuse exceeds those limits.