A woman in Indianapolis is attempting to defend herself from felony child abuse charges by claiming that her actions fell under her rights under a “freedom of religion” law signed by Indiana governor Mike Pence. Kin Park Thaing said she stopped her son, age 7, from engaging in “dangerous behavior that would have seriously harmed his 3-year-old sister” – by beating both children with a coat hanger, leaving 36 large welts on her son’s body, and then telling them to pray for forgiveness, supposedly in accordance with her evangelical Christian beliefs.
Thaing claims that her choice of discipline is protected under the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by Pence, who is now running alongside Donald Trump as the Republican vice presidential candidate. The Act was designed to grant explicit protection to religious actions except in the case that the government can establish a compelling interest in doing so. The original version that Pence passed appeared to be tailor-made to legalize anti-LGBTQ discrimination, following recent uproar on the religious right that Christians are being oppressed by laws that make them treat all Americans equally and with respect.
The Act says, “A governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion…[unless it] (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
In a pitiful attempt to justify her actions, Thiang explains, “I was worried for my son’s salvation with God after he dies. 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.” In legal documents she quotes scripture: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.”
The Marion County Deputy Prosecutor, Matt Savage, argues that Thaing’s actions went beyond “reasonable corporal punishment,” and that Indiana’s compelling interest in protecting child welfare outweighs religious liberty. Unfortunately, as recently as 2008 the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that a parent can beat their child with a belt or an electrical cord so long as the beating is in accordance with the parent’s religious beliefs. This was before Pence came along with his Religious Freedom Restoration Act, strengthening the defense of parents who happen to be both abusive and pious.
American citizens are certainly entitled to believe what they wish, but recent efforts by the far right have been working to prioritize religious conviction over the common good. Religious liberty must not become a license to abuse children, engage in discrimination, or otherwise inflict tyranny on fellow citizens. The myth that stopping religious bigots from oppressing others is actually oppressing the zealots needs to be debunked. America must acknowledge that this same line of reasoning applies to Christians who want to harm children, LGBTQ people, and non-Christians in fits of religious fervor.
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Marisa completed her undergraduate degree in 2013 at the University of Wisconsin with a double major in creative writing and media studies. She is an advocate of progressive policies and focuses her interests on gender equality and preventing sexual and domestic violence.