Indiana woman uses religious objections law in abuse defense

The attorney for a woman charged with child abuse for allegedly beating her son with a coat hanger says Indiana's religious objections law gives her the right to discipline her children according to her evangelical Christian beliefs.

Kihn Par Thaing, 30, of Indianapolis was arrested in February on felony abuse and neglect charges after a teacher discovered her 7-year-old son's injuries. Thaing is accused of beating her son with a coat hanger, leaving him with 36 bruises and red welts.

Her attorney, Greg Bowes, argues in court documents filed July 29 that the state shouldn't interfere with Thaing's right to raise her children as she deems appropriate. He cited Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act as part of her defense, saying it gives her the right to discipline her children according to her beliefs, The Indianapolis Star reported.

Court documents cite biblical Scripture and state that a parent who "spares the rod, spoils the child."

Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Matt Savage said in an Aug. 5 response that the boy's beating went "beyond these religious instructions" and said Indiana's compelling interest in preventing child abuse outweighs religious protections in state law.

Indiana's religious objections law, signed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence last year, prohibits government entities from substantially burdening religious liberties, unless by the least restrictive means to further a compelling government interest.

But nothing in the law specifically mentions parenting and the statute hasn't yet been substantially tested in the courts.

Bowes also cites in his client's defense a 2008 Indiana Supreme Court decision that affirmed the parental right to discipline children in ways parents consider appropriate, even when others could deem that behavior as excessive.

According to court documents, Thaing said she stopped her son from dangerous behavior on Feb. 3 that would have seriously harmed his 3-year-old sister and hit both children with a plastic coat hanger before telling them to pray for forgiveness.

Child welfare officials took the children into their care in February, but it's unclear where they are now. Bowes' attorney and a spokeswoman for Marion County's prosecutor said they could not comment on the children's whereabouts.

Thaing, who faces an Oct. 19 trial, is a refugee from Myanmar, a Southeast Asian nation also known as Burma, and was granted political asylum in the U.S. She cited cultural differences between the two countries as part of her defense.

Elaisa Vahnie, the executive director of the Burmese American Community Institute in Indianapolis, said what might be seen as a crime in Indiana may be considered typical parenting in Myanmar.

"Sometimes you use a stick to correct them (in Myanmar). That's very normal," she said.

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