July-August 2021 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A federal appeals court has ruled that the religious freedom rights of a fundamentalist Christian couple were not violated when officials in Kentucky investigated them for allegedly excessive use of corporal punishment.

The couple, Jacob and Genetta Clark, came under investigation after one of their children told a counselor at school that he was being abused at home. The boy had marks on his arm from being hit with a belt. The matter was referred to officials at the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which investigated the couple for child abuse.

The Clarks resisted the investigation and claimed that they were being singled out for their religious beliefs. Social workers subsequently ordered the two to refrain from using corporal punishment on their three children.

The couple sued, and a federal district court dismissed their case. The appeals court decision affirms the lower court’s ruling.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that while parents have a right to use corporal punishment, it can be limited.

“While we can state with ease that there is a general right to use reasonable corporal punishment at home and in schools, that right is not an unlimited one,” observed the court. “The Clarks have offered no authority that imposing corporal punishment that leaves marks is reasonable and is therefore a protected right.”

Elsewhere the court noted, “The Supreme Court has repeatedly found that although targeting religious beliefs is never acceptable, a generally applicable law that incidentally burdens one’s free exercise rights will typically be upheld. … Here, the state certainly has a compelling interest in protecting children from physical abuse, and the regulation is written such that it explicitly does not prohibit corporal punishment that does not leave marks, bruises, etc. Thus, the regulation is narrowly tailored and serves a compelling government interest.” (Clark v. Stone)