The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today the state can keep children away from a would-be foster couple who believe corporal punishment is part of their religious duty - even if they agree to limit the spanking to their natural children and not spank any foster children.
Gregory and Melanie Magazu of Fitchburg, who have two children of their own, sought to become foster and "pre-adoptive" parents in 2012, but were denied permission by the state Department of Children and Families because they said their Christian beliefs sometimes compelled them to spank their own children.
A DCF hearing officer ruled the fact that they occasionally felt compelled to spank their own children, even if always behind a closed door, could cause "serious emotional consequences" for any children placed in their care, especially if they had experienced violence in the past. And should the couple adopt any of the children, then their self-applied ban would no longer apply.
The couple appealed, arguing the decision violated their religious freedom and could bar both Christians and Jews from become foster parents.
The state's highest court agreed that the First Amendment and the equivalent section of the Massachusetts constitution both give citizens the "absolute" right to religious belief.
But where the Magazus' case falters is whether the constitutions also provide an absolute right to act on those beliefs if that would affect others, the justices continued.
And there, the state can balance a right to acting on a belief and its effect on others, children, the court said. In this particular case, the state's desire to protect vulnerable children from potential harm outweighs the couple's First Amendment rights:
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. Accordingly, the Magazus are not entitled to relief [under state law].