The Boston Globe, September 14, 1999

Minister's lawyer likens spankings to 'religious' event - SJC weighs parental right, DSS finding
By Sacha Pfeiffer

The whippings that Donald R. Cobble Jr. occasionally administers his young son are, his lawyer argues, ''essentially a religious ceremony.''

Before and after spanking 12-year-old Judah with a leather belt - always on the buttocks, and always when the boy is fully clothed - Cobble says he does two things: He hugs his son, and he tells him that he loves him.

Often, the Woburn minister also reads from the Bible as he delivers the spankings, so Judah understands ''the religious nature and spirituality of the discipline.''

To Cobble, the ritual is constitutionally protected, effective parenting.

To the state Department of Social Services, it verges on child abuse.

Whether Cobble's method of discipline is protected by his constitutional right to freedom of religion will be decided by the state Supreme Judicial Court, which yesterday heard arguments by lawyers for both sides.

The high court's decision is anxiously awaited by advocates and opponents of corporal punishment, who disagree passionately over whether physical discipline is a parent's protected right, or whether it is simply sanctioned violence.

''The line between corporal punishment and child abuse is hard to draw,'' said Mary O'Connell, a professor of family and children's law at Northeastern University. ''Some parents are abusers in ways so hideous the human mind can't even cope with it. In other cases, you see people who don't seem to know the line between correction and abuse.''

Cobble, an associate pastor at the Christian Teaching and Worship Center in Woburn, attracted DSS attention in 1997, when his son, Judah, then 9, told a teacher he feared being spanked by his father.

The child's remarks triggered a DSS investigation, which led a social worker to conclude that Cobble had abused his son in the past and could do so in the future. Eventually, a Superior Court judge reached the same conclusion.

Cobble was not criminally charged but is appealing the DSS finding. He does not deny that he spanks his son. But he says he only uses the soft end of a belt, and only when Judah's behavior merits it - not when his academic performance is poor.

Cobble's spankings left no welts or bruises; instead, according to what his son told social workers, they left pink marks that would fade after about 10 minutes.

''Just speaking to a child is not enough,'' Cobble said. ''Some need the rod sometimes.''

Cobble's lawyer, Chester Darling, agrees, and thinks DSS is flexing its muscles in an area where it has no authority.

''They should keep their noses out of these families and their personal business,'' said Darling. ''The state has no business telling parents whether they can or can't spank their children.''

DSS agrees that parents have a right to discipline their children. But it argues that the constitution does not protect parental discipline that jeopardizes the health or safety of a child.

At the same time, DSS acknowledges that it is not always easy to distinguish between discipline and abuse. To gauge the severity of a punishment, a lawyer for the agency argued yesterday, factors such as frequency and force of the punishment, and a child's resulting pain and fear, must be taken into consideration.

To supporters of corporal punishment, the Cobble case represents government intrusion into a parent's God-given right to raise his son the way he sees fit.

''Physical punishment is not inherently wrong and it's not illegal,'' said Virginia attorney Jordan Lorence, a First Amendment specialist who has worked on many parental rights cases, ''but many government social work agencies are controlled by a philosophy that says all physical punishment should be illegal.''

But many corporal punishment opponents think that some parents ''lean on'' outdated Scripture to justify what amounts to child abuse.

For example, noted Nadine Block, director of the Center for Effective Discipline in Columbus, Ohio, which advocates alternatives to corporal punishment, Deuteronomy teaches that a son who disrespects his father should be stoned.

''Do reasonable people really believe we should be stoning children?'' she said. ''We try to be respectful to people's beliefs, and yet we feel that our greatest priority is to protect children.''

This story ran on page B02 of the Boston Globe on 09/14/99. Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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