Columns

Spanking vs. Religious Freedom: Why Did Born-Again Christians Lose Fight to Become Foster Parents?

Gregory and Melanie Magazu have decided they can’t afford to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, even if they wanted to. The born-again Christian couple is going to have to set aside the dream of opening their home in Fitchburg, Mass., to foster kids because they were honest enough to admit they spank their own children.

“This is something that has been on my heart for a long time,” Melanie told reporters as the stay-at-home mom explained that she was in the child welfare system from the age of 11 to 18 and suffered abuse at the hands of foster parents.

The Magazus applied to become foster parents in 2012. Everything went smoothly enough until the issue of corporal punishment came up in discussions with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF).

It isn’t that Gregory and Melanie wanted to spank the foster children who might come to their home. They agreed to only use corporal punishment on their own children — 12-year-old Kira, her 10-year-old sister Tessa, and their baby brother, Gregory — and even then only in a bedroom behind closed doors so as not to impact the foster kids.

Gregory and Melanie only started spanking their children about seven years ago, when they became born-again Christians. They told state officials spanking in their home was done only by strict Christian principles.

However, the DCF ruled that even though foster children in the Magazu home would not be spanked, just the idea that spanking could and would happen in the home might be enough to damage them psychologically or emotionally.

“They have to protect their kids — we get that,” Melanie said while surrounded by TV and radio reporters’ microphones. “But I think that not every family that’s spanking is an abusive family.”

Gregory agreed with his wife that the DCF’s guidelines were arbitrary to say the least.

“Just because a family believes that spanking is a legitimate form of child discipline shouldn’t preclude them from being able to foster and then adopt children,” Gregory told reporters as he and Melanie took legal action against the Department of Children and Families in 2013.

Citing the biblical proverb, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him,” and the argument that denying them the right to become foster parents infringed upon their religious rights, the Magazus filed suit against the DCF.

Their attorney, David Bodanza, contended that because the Magazus’ firmly held Christian beliefs were being ignored, DCF social workers were essentially saying that “Christians and Jews need not apply” when it came to adopting children in Massachusetts.

“DCF has a long track record of approving people who really, clearly are probably not up to the task. If you look at (our) whole picture, I think you’d say, ‘Obviously, these parents are getting the job done, a very hard job done,” Gregory Magazu told the Telegram & Gazette.

However, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against them on Jan. 4.

“We … conclude that although the department’s decision imposes a substantial burden on the Magazus’ sincerely held religious beliefs, this burden is outweighed by the department’s compelling interest in protecting the physical and emotional well-being of foster children,” the court wrote in its unanimous opinion.

The Magazus have accepted their defeat graciously, though if they had the resources the couple might be willing to take it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We were hoping that things would obviously go differently and the SJC would see that our family just wants to help kids,” Gregory Magazu said. “We just feel like DCF was taking a really hard stance on something that I really don’t think tells the whole story.”

However, she and Gregory also told reporters following the announcement of the Supreme Justice Court ruling that went against them that they would continue to discipline their children as they saw fit, and that would include corporal punishment when necessary.

Boston Herald columnist Joe Fitzgerald wrote that given “the DCF’s horrific record of monitoring kids assigned to its care, some of whom have wound up dead, it’s a little bit hard to stomach its self-professed obsession with the welfare of those in its care.”

He also pointed out that the Magazus must be honest people. They could have hidden the fact that they spank their kids, and no one would have been the wiser.

But they didn’t, as Fitzgerald put it, “hide any red flags.”

“A kid who wound up in that home might have been richly blessed,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Unfortunately, that home is located in Massachusetts, making it just one more lousy break he or she did not need.”