Erin Beck, Child abuse victim advocates concerned about ‘religious freedom’ bill, Charleston Gazette-Mail

People who work to prevent child abuse and help abuse victims in West Virginia are concerned that a bill up for a final vote in the Legislature on Wednesday could be used to justify child abuse in the name of “religious freedom.” The bill (HB 4012), which is similar to “religious freedom restoration acts” in other states, establishes a legal process for courts to follow when people or businesses believe the government is violating their religious beliefs. The law would establish a balancing test for courts to use when determining whether the person is being substantially burdened by government action, and whether the state has “compelling governmental interest” in ensuring the law is followed. Governmental actions could include civil rights laws, including local LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, so civil rights advocates fear the law will be used to allow discrimination against the LGBT community and other historically-discriminated against groups. Proponents of the bill have openly said support stems from opposition to same-sex marriage. Jim McKay, state coordinator for Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia, is worried about effects on another vulnerable group — children. He wonders if “governmental action” would also include laws to protect children. “We have seen the [Catholic] church protect abusers by moving them from parish to parish,” McKay said. “We have seen genital mutilation practices in some parts of the world. Closer to home, Dr. James Dobson (founder of the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family) has compared raising a child to whipping a dog with a belt.” Last week, a Louisiana judge ruled that a provision of the state Children’s Code requiring priests and other religious leaders to report abuse is unconstitutional, according to The Advocate. A young woman said that when she was 14, she told a Catholic priest during confession that she was being abused by a 64-year-old parishioner, and the priest told her to “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.” Although that case involved constitutional protections rather than a state “religious freedom” law, some advocates believe it highlights the potential problems with such laws. Emily Chittenden-Laird, executive director of the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network, said her group, which includes child advocacy centers in the state, had chosen not to weigh in on the debate over HB 4012, officially called the “Religious Freedom Protection Act.” They viewed its impact as outside the scope of child safety, she said. “However, in light of the recent Louisiana court ruling, which held the sincere practice of a religious belief above the safety and well-being of a child abuse victim, we are now taking a closer look at the implications of RFRA for child safety in West Virginia,” Chittenden-Laird said. “At this late stage in the game, we would ask the Legislature to step back and seriously evaluate all potential consequences of the bill, especially as it pertains to child safety.” West Virginia state law also requires religious leaders to report suspected abuse. Bryan Minor, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, said in an email that “the law recognizes the privilege of the confessional,” and that the diocese complies with the law. The diocese supports HB 4012. “The Catholic Diocese believes in religious liberty and its free exercise, and we maintain that religious freedom should never be the basis for discrimination,” Minor said. Others have cited “religious freedom restoration” laws during investigations into child maltreatment. In 2014, a judge applied the federal RFRA to a case involving possible child labor violations and ruled that a man didn’t have to answer questions about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints during his deposition, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. McKay said that while he doesn’t believe bill drafters meant to encourage child abuse, he fears it could be an unintended consequence. “It is already extremely difficult to substantiate child maltreatment and hold abusers accountable,” he said. “We should be very cautious about approaches that can make that process more challenging.”

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