More than 100 women and children from a fundamentalist church in Canada have fled their homes for rural communities in the Midwest over fears that authorities will seize their children because church members administer spankings with switches and paddles.
The 28 mothers and their 80 children, members of the Church of God, a nondenominational church in Aylmer, Ontario, say they may ask for asylum in the United States.
Child welfare workers in southern Ontario took seven siblings from their home on July 4 because of corporal punishment meted out by parents. The children were returned home July 26 after their parents agreed not to use physical punishment while the matter was before the courts. The parents were also prohibited from leaving the province.
"The whole issue is spanking and discipline, and how we see in modern times that when parents don't discipline their children it leads to all kinds of societal problems," said Daniel Layne, a Church of God pastor in California and the group's spiritual adviser.
"Switching is used as a last resort, but the Scriptures clearly call for it and we won't give it up," said Layne, who was in Farmland, Ind., with some of the self-described refugees.
Layne said the families moved to Ohio and Indiana because those states have more permissive laws governing corporal punishment for children than Ontario, which allows spanking only within the bounds of "reasonable force." Canadian case law has interpreted that as prohibiting the use of objects such as paddles, sticks and belts.
In the United States, there are no laws that specifically make parental corporal punishment unlawful. But there are a wide variety of child abuse laws that define when a child subjected to corporal punishment becomes an abused child, experts said.
The law in Ohio effectively prohibits corporal punishment that creates a "substantial risk of serious physical harm," including hospitalization, risk of death, permanent incapacity or disfigurement.
"Basically it rules out the rack," said Robert Surgenor, a former Berea, Ohio, police detective who wrote a book favoring child spanking called No Fear: A Police Officer's Perspective. However, in Florida, causing a red welt on a child's skin can lead to a fourth-degree felony charge and a five-year prison term, he said.
Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law, said there have been cases in several states, including Vermont and Michigan, where child welfare agencies intervened when religious practices called for corporal punishment.
He said there are no religious exemptions from physical child abuse, and states are fairly equally divided between strict and lenient definitions of when corporal punishment becomes child abuse.
Three weeks ago, when child welfare officials in Ontario ordered a second family of church members to report for an interview, all of the congregation's other mothers and children younger than 16 left Canada to live with Church of God members in Ohio and Indiana. They said they were afraid their children would be seized if the corporal punishment law wasn't changed.
One of the self-exiled mothers in Farmland, Christine Rabel, said she "occasionally" uses a switch on some of her four children, who range in age from 8 years to 9 months, because "I was raised that way and that's the way I want to raise my children."
Rabel, whose husband, Karl, remained in Aylmer because of his electronics maintenance job, said she would rather move back to Canada if child welfare officials eased their prohibitions against corporal punishment. But she said if it comes to seeking asylum in the United States, she and the other mothers would welcome it.
Ontario officials "should look at the whole family and not just at the law. We'll stay here until we get the OK that we're not going to be checked up on," Rabel said.