Religious Belief In Corporal Punishment Precludes Adoption

A couple whose deeply-held religious beliefs include the use of corporal punishment as a method of child rearing were properly denied the ability to become foster parents and to adopt, according to a decision issued today by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The department has not challenged the Magazus’ contention that their use of corporal punishment is based on their sincerely held religious beliefs. Therefore, in order to succeed on their claim, the Magazus must establish that the department’s prohibition against the use of corporal punishment in a foster home constitutes a “substantial burden” on their exercise of those beliefs…

Here, because the department’s prohibition against the use of corporal punishment in a foster home is inherently incompatible with the Magazus’ religious beliefs, the Magazus are compelled to make a choice. On the one hand, they can adhere to the teachings of their religion and use corporal punishment as a form of discipline in their home, thereby forfeiting the opportunity to become foster parents. On the other hand, they can abandon this particular religious tenet in the hope of being approved as foster parents. We conclude that, by conditioning the Magazus’ opportunity to become foster parents on their willingness to forsake a sincerely held religious belief, the department has substantially burdened the Magazus’ constitutional right under art. 46, 1, of the Amendments to the free exercise of religion.

Here, the state interest is substantial

Consistent with this compelling State interest, the department has determined that a foster child should not be placed in a home where corporal punishment is used as a disciplinary measure. Creating an exception to this policy for individuals like the Magazus who employ physical discipline in conformity with their religious beliefs would severely undermine the department’s substantial interest in protecting the physical and emotional well-being of children whose welfare has been entrusted to the department’s care. Moreover, expecting the department to place with the Magazus children who have not suffered neglect or abuse is neither realistic nor feasible given the type of children served by the department and the potential dearth of information concerning the precise nature and scope of their prior trauma. Based on the department’s compelling interest in protecting the welfare of foster children, we conclude that its prohibition against the use of corporal punishment in a foster home outweighs the burden on the Magazus’ right to employ physical discipline in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Justice Corby concurred and noted that foster care abuse was a legitimate concern

One is left to wonder, however, whether the real problem in this case was not so much the department’s concern for child safety, but rather a disagreement with the plaintiff’s beliefs regarding the upbringing of their children. While we have no other licensing investigation files in the record before us, it is hard to ignore the highly public tragedies of the last two years regarding children under the supervision of the department in foster homes, and not to question whether the high standards and intensive assessment and scrutiny applied to the plaintiffs is the exception rather than the norm, particularly in the western region.

(Mike Frisch)