The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court opened 2016 with a decisive statement against the crusaders of religious freedom. The matter of Magazu, et al. v. Department of Children of Families, SJC – 11864 set a strong precedent upon aspiring foster parents with deeply held religious convictions, who employ the use of corporal punishment.
The Magazus were a married couple, who maintained a strict adherence to the tenets of the Christian faith. The Magazu family consisted of mother, father, and two (2) daughters. In September of 2012, the Magazus determine that they wanted to adopt one or more of the foster children already placed in their care. Concomitant with this desire, the Magazus filed an application with the department of children and families for a “family resource license”, which would enable them to become foster and preadoptive parents.
During their application process, they completed the “Massachusetts Approach to Partnership in Parenting”, as well as the “Family Resource License Study”, as required by the Department of Children and Families (hereinafter “DCF”). Among other things, the study asked the Magazus about their personal histories, parenting experiences and attitudes, including methods of discipline.
The Magazus reported that they “‘have used physical discipline on their daughters,’” and that such discipline is “‘appropriate when there is a continuous pattern of disobedience.’ “(quoting slip opinion of Magazu, et al. v. Department of Children of Families, SJC – 11864). The Magazus specifically indicated that their preferred method of corporal punishment was “ ‘spanking on the buttocks, using Greg or Melanie’s hand, in the privacy of their bed room so that [the children] are not humiliated in front of others.’ ”(Ibid.) Notably, the Magazus confirmed that physical discipline “‘is a small part of their parenting style, and only used when necessary.’”
The following winter, on February 7, 2013, the Magazus were notified that their application had been denied because of their use of corporal punishment. DCF further stated that they had failed to meet certain licensing standards, including the ability to sign DCF’s written agreement prohibiting the use of any corporal punishment.
Frustrated by their denial, the Magazus filed a timely request for a “fair heaving”. Three months later in May of 2013, the hearing occurred. One June 24, 2013, the hearing officer affirmed the decision of DCF not to approve their application to become foster parents. As grounds for denying their petition, the hearing officer opined that the Magazus failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that somehow DCF’s decision did not confirm with its’ written rules and regulations, or that the decision was somehow unreasonable.
1 The Magazus claimed their religious faith would not allow them to affirm they would not engage in corporal punishment, but maintained that they did not physically discipline either of their children in the presence of the other, and certainly would not do so in the presence of the foster children in their care.
Evidently unsatisfied, the Magazus then appealed this administrative decision, seeking judicial review, by filing a complaint in the Superior Court pursuant to MGL Ch. 30A §14.
Enter the constitutional argument.
Within their §14 Complaint, the Magazus alleged that their substantial rights had been prejudiced because, inter alia, DCF’s decision violated their constitutional rights, insofar as DCF violated their right to the free exercise of religion under the Federal and State Constitutions. DCF (evidently content with their prior work) filed their administrative record as its answer.
Shortly thereafter, the Magazus filed a Motion for Judgment on the pleadings. After hearing, the judge denied the Magazus’ motion for judgment on the pleadings, and dismissed the complaint from which it spawned.
The Magazus appealed, and shortly thereafter, by way of motion, the Supreme Judicial Court, sua sponte, transferred the matter to its own house.
The central argument lodged by the Magazus on appeal was that because physical discipline is an integral part of their faith, DCF’s decision impermissibly infringed on their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.
The Supreme Judicial Court rightfully opened their opinion by re-stating the Magazus obligation of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that DCF’s decision ‘was not in conformity with [its] policies and/or regulations and resulted in substantial prejudice to the [Magazus].’ (Ibid., citing MGL Ch. 119 § 1). The Court continued its reasoning: “Consonant with its enabling legislation, the department has determined that an application for licensure as a foster parent must demonstrate, among other qualities, the ability to ‘promote the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of a child placed in his or her care.’” (quoting slip opinion of Magazu, et al. v. Department of Children of Families, SJC – 11864, citing 11 Code Mass. Regs. §7.104(1)(d)
When it is alleged that the Commonwealth has violated one’s free exercise of religion, a balancing test is triggered. See Desilets, 418 Mass. at 321-323. The test requires that the Court determine whether the State action about which a party has complained “substantially burdens [the] free exercise of religion, and, if it does, whether the Commonwealth has shown that it has an interest sufficiently compelling to justify that burden.” (Desilets, 418 Mass. at 322)
The Court applied the balancing test as follows:
“Here, because the department’s prohibition against the use of corporal punishment in a foster home is inherently incompatible with the Magazus’ religious beliefs, the Magazus are compelled to make a choice. On the one hand, they can adhere to the teachings of their religion
2 Notably, the Magazus also alleged that DCF’s decision exceeded the Department’s own authority, was based on errors of law, was arbitrary and capricious, and was not supported by substantial evidence.
and use corporal punishment as a form of discipline in their home, thereby forfeiting the opportunity to become foster parents. On the other hand, they can abandon this particular religious tenet in the hope of being approved as foster parents. We conclude that, by conditioning the Magazus’ opportunity to become foster parents on their willingness to forsake a sincerely held religious belief, the department has substantially burdened the Magazus’ constitutional right under art. 46, § 1, of the Amendments to the free exercise of religion.” (quoting slip opinion of Magazu, et al. v. Department of Children of Families, SJC – 11864
Determining a violation exists, the Court must then determine whether the Commonwealth – that is, DCF – has demonstrated “a sufficiently compelling interest to justify this burden.” (Ibid.)
The Court sides with DCF, by concluding:
“Based on the department’s compelling interest in protecting the welfare of foster children, we conclude that its prohibition against the use of corporal punishment in a foster home outweighs the burden on the Magazus’ right to employ physical discipline in accordance with their religious beliefs. Accordingly, the Magazus are not entitled to relief under G. L. c. 30A, § 14 (7) (a).”
While the Magazu decision can be construed as a defeat for champions of religious freedom, it also unquestionably emboldens the autonomous authority possessed by administrative law officers. The decision by Jamie Caron, regional clinical director for the Department of Children of Families, was subsequently and unequivocally affirmed by two (2) courts. Her testimony that corporal punishment is not appropriate for children in need of alternative care and placement, has galvanized the nexus between religious tolerance and the best interests of the children, with the later maintaining its apparent prominence.
Anthony J. Low, Esq. is a Senior Partner at the Shapiro Law Group. Mr. Low focuses his practice on all areas of matrimonial law, including guardianship, highly charged child custody disputes, complex asset division, divorce, and modifications.