The New York Times, November 17, 1999

Massachusetts Court Tosses Spanking Charge
By The Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) -- The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court dismissed a child abuse charge against a minister who spanked his son, ruling Wednesday that child welfare officials provided inadequate evidence.

Donald Cobble, a minister from Woburn, said he spanked his 12-year-old son once to twice a month with the end of a leather belt to instill discipline.

The Department of Social Services filed an abuse finding against Cobble but offered to drop the charge if he agreed to stop spanking. He refused. Lawyers for the state argued the spanking raised ``substantial risk of physical injury'' to the boy.

The high court ordered the department's finding vacated.

``Today, we conclude only that, on the totality of the record presented in this case, the effects of the plaintiff's physical discipline on his minor child did not satisfy the department's own regulatory definitions of physical injury and abuse,'' the court ruled.

``However, a method of corporal punishment similar to the plaintiff's could, in different circumstances, rise to a level of severity that would result in the actual infliction of impermissible injuries,'' the court added.

Cobble's attorney, Chester Darling, said he he wasn't surprised the court chose to avoid the question of religious freedom and simply address whether there was enough evidence for an abuse finding.

``Any court will avoid the constitutional issues if it can be reversed on other grounds, which they did here,'' he said.

A DSS spokesman didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.

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