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Corporal Punishment: When a Religious Exemption Becomes a License to Brutalize

| November 14, 2012

In the shadow of scriptures. (Liz Kasameyer)

By Cary McMullen

A harrowing recent series in the Tampa Bay Times detailed how for 30 years a handful of homes for troubled youth have used a misguided exemption in Florida law to get away with all manner of abuses by using religion as a shield.

These homes have gone unregulated because of a 1984 provision that removes religious homes from state oversight and places them under what is essentially a self-regulatory body whose oversight is, to say the least, lax.

Cary McMullen


florida voices columnists flaglerlive

Among the abuses committed by these homes were beatings, extended isolation, shackling and sexual crimes as well. The homes have almost completely gotten away with it until now, and fortunately the Times series has forced the state to start an investigation.

The series did not give the history behind the 1984 exemption, only that it was passed due to the efforts of a handful of pastors – presumably of a fundamentalist Christian persuasion – and a powerful state legislator. Reading between the lines, my guess is that this exemption and the mess it created has to do with corporal punishment, which was beginning to be forbidden in schools and state-supervised homes about that time.

The behavioral sciences have since the 1960s discouraged corporal punishment on the grounds that it does more harm than good, and this defines a clash of values. The issue is not just about spanking. Fundamentalists, and sometimes their more moderate cousins, evangelicals, distrust the philosophy that would forbid corporal punishment.

It’s true that psychology and sociology sometimes have far-out ideas, but for conservative Protestants the distrust lies in their assumptions about the nature of human beings. The behavioral sciences tend to assume that human nature is naturally disposed toward improvement. The right techniques that lead to greater self-awareness will result in better mental health, more happiness, etc.

Protestantism traditionally has taken a more skeptical view. Protestant theology has asserted that human nature is naturally sinful and incapable of improvement on its own and that the only remedy for this is reliance upon the grace of God. Only by obedience to the will and ways of God is a human being able to find joy and ultimately salvation.


Regrettably, this theology sometimes has been twisted and exaggerated to produce a harsh, unyielding form of disciplining children that has little to do with the Bible from which it is supposedly drawn. It is overlaid with secular conservative values – independence, traditional views of gender roles, admiration for physical courage and so on.

So when psychologists say that spanking is bad for a child, it goes against the grain. It’s one more bit of evidence to fundamentalists that the behavioral sciences embrace views that are contrary to the word of God.

In this case, they wielded political muscle to isolate themselves from obeying the laws of the state, laws that were put in place to protect children from the excesses that some of these misguided people thought were necessary to uphold their values.

To be fair, not all evangelicals hold these views, as the Times’ Alexandra Zayas points out in one of her stories. And even officials at Southern Baptist Children’s agencies were against the exemption at the time it was proposed because of the potential for abuse.

It goes without saying that this exemption was a bad idea from the beginning. When the welfare of children is at stake, even well-intentioned people cannot be given a blank check.

Of course, if the people running these homes had paid closer attention to the teachings of Jesus, including the Golden Rule – “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” – there might not have been any abuses in the first place.

Cary McMullen is a journalist and editor who lives in Lakeland. He can be reached by email here.

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7 Responses for “Corporal Punishment: When a Religious Exemption Becomes a License to Brutalize”

  1. Julie Worley says:

    FL Lawmakers must Abolish Taxpayer Funded Public School Corporal Pain Punishment of Children in Schools, schoolchildren legally hit with wooden paddles by educators to inflict Pain as Punishment for minor infractions, even against written parental prohibition! 2/3 of TN students attend “Paddling Schools” where parental consent and notification not required for children to be hit in school, Prohibited in Nashville schools and Schools in 31 U.S. States. Corporal Punishment prohibited by Federal Law for use against convicted Felons in ALL U.S. Prisons! See Truth at YouTube Video Trailer for Documentary Movie “The Board of Education” by Jared Abrams. Federal Bill H.R. 3027 “The Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act” Expires again December 2012! Search “A Violent Education” 2008 Study by Human Rights Watch and ACLU for disturbing facts. Federal lawmakers enacted a law to Prohibit the use of corporal punishment against covicted Felons in ALL U.S. Prisons! Cost to Abolish School Employees Hitting Students with wooden Paddles $0 dont hit students dot com

       3 likes

  2. Sea dog says:

    In spite of what todays thought is, corporal punishment can be effective, 50 years ago we even used it at the YMCA, believe it or not, you could get spanked usually with pinpong paddle, (boys only) or kicked out. After a couple years corporal punishment was out of fashion. A few years later a boy with behavior problems so severe that the a YMCA I mangaged could no long handle him, this is a child that stayed at the YMCA every day all day because his parents could not manage him either. A few days after we kicked him out he went into a garage and managed to burn him self alive with a gallon of gasoline.

       1 likes

  3. Samuel Smith says:

    Here’s a small excerpt from the original article:

    Residents at Lighthouse when Brooks was there in 2007 and 2008 recall her being floored frequently, by six to seven other girls, sometimes for hours.

    “Six girls sitting on top of you is like those silent movies where they’re running through the park and they stop under a window and a piano is dropped on top of them,” said Brooks, now 20. “Your body is functioning the way it should be, then bam, you’ve got, like, 3,000 pounds on you. …

    “You could take little tiny breaths, because there was so much weight on you.”

    Here’s the link to the article, which is missing for some reason from this editorial: http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/article1258892.ece

    That’s not corporal punishment, that’s abuse.

       2 likes

  4. pamala zill says:

    Absolutely. Unacceptable …ABUSE IS ABUSE. THERE IS NO EXCUSE.(

       0 likes

  5. "My Daily Rant" says:

    SPARE THE ROD SPOIL THE CHILD…My father would give me a smack when I screwed up and mostly because I knew it was a screw up before I did it.I love my father very much and also I have NEVER been arrested,done drugs,I never even gotten a parking ticket.Went on to Boston College and have a great job. THANKS DAD FOR CAREING.

       0 likes

    • Samuel Smith says:

      “He said he had been shackled for 12 days, chained at the wrists even as he slept on his top bunk and released only to shower.

      Employees had punched him, choked him, thrown him against the walls”

      “He said staff slammed his head into the walls on the first day because he cried and pushed his face in the sand.

      Smith said he was made to stand all day and allowed to urinate on himself.”

      “In July 2004, Weierman says, a boy left on the verge of kidney failure after being forced to endure what the colonel called an “extreme” amount of exercise.

      Weierman said the boy’s kidneys were not functioning correctly and staff at the home made it worse by forcing him to drink a quart of water an hour.”

      Here’s how they treated a girl with a legit mental illness: ”
      “How they weren’t feeding her because she would throw the plate, so they stopped bringing her food.

      “Her feet and her hands were bound because she was trying to hurt other people.”

      “They told him his mother didn’t want him. They shaved his head. They made him carry two 5-gallon buckets of dirt everywhere he went, and at night, run laps around the dorm with a tire tied to his waist. They let him speak to no one but staff, and only if he was spoken to first, and they made him sleep on the floor of a mudroom for a week or more, giving him a bucket to use as a toilet.”

      “We got sprayed down with a water hose for our shower,” Livingston said. “They made it very clear that we were not human; we were subhuman pieces of trash.”
      .

      Nice dad you have there.

         0 likes

    • Never smacked my kids once. Used only rational persuasion and felt guilty as hell about hollering a few times at them. They’re doing fine now. So we can conclude that your being smacked does not establish a trend. We probably should go to more extended studies of educational effectiveness.

         0 likes

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