Congressional Testimony on Corporal Punishment by Sean Faircloth

Written Testimony of Sean Faircloth

Executive Director, Secular Coalition for America

Submitted to the Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities Subcommittee
Committee on Education and Labor

for the Hearing on "Corporal Punishment in Schools and its Effect on Academic Success"

April 15, 2010

* * *

Thank you Chairwoman McCarthy and the other members of the Committee for this opportunity to submit written testimony as you consider whether or not to ban corporal punishment in private educational institutions.

The Secular Coalition for America is the leading organization promoting the viewpoints of nontheistic Americans and their federal policy concerns. Headquartered in Washington D.C., and founded in 2005, our mission is to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheists in the United States, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all Americans. The Secular Coalition for America submits that if Congress decides that corporal punishment must be restricted, that principle must apply to religious schools exactly as it does to secular schools.[3]
States have a duty to protect children from violence in schools equally.

The Supreme Court has said that because of the "high responsibility for education of its citizens, [a state] may impose reasonable regulations for the control and duration of basic education."[1]  The state's interest in an informed and self-sufficient citizenry capable of participating in a democratic society is generally cited to support the regulation of private schools.[2]   In 2009, 10.5% of all elementary and secondary students in America were enrolled in a private school. 

The state's interest in protecting children from the dangers associated with corporal punishment could not be met if some schools were exempted from the law. This is particularly true considering many influential Christian leaders such as Focus on the Family’s James Dobson advocate that corporal punishment be used in both schools and homes.[4]  Exempting religious private schools from a ban on corporal punishment would mean that the government is authorizing the use of physical violence as a form of punishment for children for a specific set of children. Children in religious schools are no less human – and no less equal citizens -- than children anywhere else.

Exempting religious private schools from a ban on corporal punishment violates the principle of equal protection under the law. Excluding religious schools from any school regulations intended to guarantee a high-quality education or to protect children from harm impinges upon most basic right of children in these schools—the right to equality. If the state’s goal is to protect children from harm resulting from corporal punishment, then there is no less restrictive way to protect children other than banning corporal punishment in all private and public schools. Children in private schools deserve the same protections as children in public schools.

Not all states apply uniform corporal punishment bans

Both New Jersey[5]  and Iowa[6]  have specifically outlawed corporal punishment in both private and public schools. Alaska, California, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Utah and Washington allow corporal punishment in private schools even though they are banned in public schools. Allowing corporal punishment in private schools, despite state corporal punishment bans in public schools, unfairly privileges religious institutions over secular institutions and unconstitutionally entangles church and state – while violating the basic human rights of a distinct group of children.

Religious beliefs are no excuse for using corporal punishment

The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment provides great protection for religious beliefs and speech. The courts, however, have always drawn a distinction between religious beliefs and religiously-motivated conduct. While the freedom to believe is absolute, the Free Exercise Clause does not mandate that religiously-motivated conduct must be free from law. Moreover, the “conduct” involved here is hurting another human being, a child no less. What a person chooses for their own body is far different from a policy that permits harm to another essentially defenseless human being. As the Supreme Court has said, “neither the rights of religion nor the rights of parenthood are beyond limitation” and the Free Exercise clause cannot be used to justify placing children in harm’s way.[7]  In the case of corporal punishment in schools, the state has a compelling interest in ending corporal punishment in schools and protecting children from these practices. Numerous studies have shown that corporal punishment may trigger criminal, anti-social, violent, aggressive behavior later in life. If Congress gives credence to such studies, then they are no less credible when the results of those studies apply to religious schools.

Moreover, international regulatory bodies agree that religious values are no excuse for performing corporal punishment. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has made clear that religious values should not condone the use corporal punishment

“Some raise faith-based justifications for corporal punishment, suggesting that certain interpretations of religious texts not only justify its use, but provide a duty to use it. Freedom of religious belief is upheld for everyone in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Art. 18), but practice of a religion or belief must be consistent with respect for others’ human dignity and physical integrity. Freedom to practice one’s religion or belief may be legitimately limited in order to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” [8]

Corporal punishment ban must also apply to private religious schools

The Secular Coalition for America opposes the use of government funds for religious purposes, including funding for religious schools. We agree with the founders of the United States that no individual taxpayer should be required to pay for the propagation of another's religion. If private religious schools are to be funded with taxpayer dollars, then students attending religious schools should be protected to the same extent as their public school counterparts.

We are faced with a fundamentally moral issue. If corporal punishment of children is wrong, it is just as wrong in a religious school. We encourage people of all faiths to join their secular neighbors in asking that we as a country do what is right for children uniformly and without exception.


[1] Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 213 (1972). See also Board of Ed. of Cent. Sch. Dist. No.1 v. Allen, 392 U.S. 236, 246-247 (1968).
[2] Yoder at 221; Kentucky State Board v. Rudasill, 589 S.W.2d 877, 883 (1979).
[3] Snyder, Thomas D., Hoffman, Charlene M. Digest of Education Statistics 2008. NCES 2010-013, Washington, DC: United States Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
[4] Dobson, James C. (1996). The New Dare to Discipline. Tyndale House Publishing.
[5] N.J. Rev. Stat. §18A:6-1.
[6] IOWA CODE § 280.21
[7] Prince v. Massachusetts, U.S. Supreme Court, 1943 [8] UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), UN Committee on the Rights of the Child: General Comment No. 8, Para 29.

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