Mom cites religious freedom in beating son, pleads guilty

INDIANAPOLIS — A mother who cited religious freedom as a defense for beating her son with a coat hanger will serve a year on probation.

After a doctor found 36 bruises on her 7-year-old son, Khin Par Thaing claimed her discipline method came straight from her evangelical Christian beliefs.

Marion Superior Judge Kurt Eisgruber accepted a plea agreement Friday in which Thaing admitted she committed battery when she struck her son in February.

While Thaing pleaded guilty to felony battery, the agreement directed the judge to reduce it to a misdemeanor. In exchange, prosecutors dismissed a neglect charge and a more serious charge of felony battery.

Thaing, 30, came to court with her lawyer and several supporters. An interpreter assisted the Burmese refugee and Thaing gave short, yes-or-no answers throughout the hearing, which lasted 15 minutes.

Thaing and her lawyer, Greg Bowes, declined comment Friday. In court records, Thaing cited Scripture as a defense against the charges.

"Do not withhold discipline from a child," Thaing said in court documents, citing the Old Testament's Proverbs 23:13-14. "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," generally a synonym for Hades.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, enacted in 2015, says the government cannot intrude on a person's religious liberty unless it can prove a compelling interest in imposing that burden and can do so in the least restrictive way.

The beating occurred Feb. 3 when Thaing said she stopped her son from dangerous behavior that would seriously have harmed his 3-year-old sister.

Thaing hit both children with a plastic coat hanger before telling them to kneel and pray for God's mercy, according to the documents.

"I was worried for my son's salvation with God after he dies," Thaing said in court documents. "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."

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed the controversial religious freedom law in spring 2015, more than a year before Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump chose him as his running mate.

This isn't the only time religious freedom has been used in court:

The First Church of Cannabis in Indianapolis is claiming religious freedom in a lawsuit seeking to win the right to smoke marijuana during worship services.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana cited the law on behalf of a Boone County Jail inmate who was denied meals that conformed to his Muslim faith. The  ACLU dropped the federal lawsuit earlier this month after the Boone County Sheriff's Office gave inmates an option for a halal meal plan.

Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry has said he expects more criminal defendants will cite religion in their defense, which means more deputy prosecutors and courts will have to devote time and resources to arguing the merits of the claim.

The criminal case against Thaing was complicated by more than her religious rights. She cited cultural differences as part of her defense, noting that her family had been granted asylum from political and religious persecution in Burma.

Another wrinkle in the case is that an Indiana Supreme Court decision gives parents the right to punish their children with cords or belts and possibly coat hangers, legal experts said.

Follow Vic Ryckaert on Twitter: @VicRyc


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