Minister fights state claim that he abused his child with spankings

Tuesday, September 21, 1999

(Editor's note: On Nov. 17, the Massachusetts Supreme Court dismissed the child abuse charge against Donald Cobble, saying the state did not have enough evidence of child abuse. The court did not reach the constitutional issue raised by Cobble.)

A Christian minister in Massachusetts accused of child abuse by state social workers has asked the state's high court to recognize his right to follow religious mandates when disciplining his son.

In 1997, the Massachusetts Department of Social Services received reports from secondary teachers of Judah Cobble that his father had abused him by spanking the then-9-year-old with a leather belt. Department social worker, Rena Ugol, investigated the situation and in late March 1997 issued a declaration that Judah's father, Donald, a minister at a Christian Teaching and Worship Center in Woburn, had neglected and abused Judah. At a subsequent hearing the department upheld Ugol's declaration.

Donald Cobble then hired a Boston-based attorney, Chester Darling, and sued the state agency demanding that its declaration be reversed and acknowledge that it had violated his religious-liberty rights. Cobble has maintained all along that he had “mildly spanked his fully clothed minor child, Judah, as a form of discipline mandated” by his Christian beliefs.

In late 1998, Superior Court Judge John C. Cratsley upheld the agency's charge against Cobble. “Given the continued nature of the spanking, the vulnerability of the child, and Cobble's admission of both spanking and believing in spanking as a form of discipline, there is a real risk that this practice will lead to serious physical injury as defined by the Code of Regulations,” Cratsley wrote. The judge concluded that although “parents have freedom of religious expression and practice which enters into their liberty to manage the familial relationships, those liberties may be restricted where a child has been harmed by exposure to the parent's religious beliefs.”

Last week before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Darling argued that Cobble had not abused his son and that the state agency had infringed on the minister's constitutional rights.

Darling said that Cobble had informed the state social worker from the very beginning that his actions toward Judah were driven by his religious convictions.

“The guarantees afforded the free exercise of religion and religious expression by Rev. Cobble have been impermissibly interfered with and encroached upon by a government agency and a court,” Darling argued in his brief before the state high court. “There is no evidence that Judah was suffering from extreme emotional distress or was, as a result of his father's physical discipline, suffering serious physical injury. Speculation, supposition and generalized fears coupled with contemporary value judgments by the government of family values and religious practices, are not enough to permit the abridgement of the Cobble family's religious beliefs and to interfere in their free exercise of religion.”

After oral arguments before the high court, Cobble told The Boston Herald that he had no intention of changing the way he disciplines Judah. “Spare the rod, spoil the child, the Bible says in no uncertain terms. And I believe this is a battle about my freedom to practice what I believe to be right.”

Assistant Attorney General Juliana deHaan Rice argued on behalf of the state agency that the charges against Cobble would have been dropped had he agreed to cease the spankings, which the state maintained could harm Judah.

Darling said the high court is expected to render a decision in three to four months.