WILMINGTON, Del. (BP) -- A new child abuse law in Delaware was opposed by pro-family groups because some say it could be interpreted to prohibit parents from disciplining their children by spanking.
"Unless this law is clarified or amended, then parents in Delaware who spank could be charged with a felony and put into prison for the loving discipline of their children," commentator Denny Burk wrote. "Christian parents could be incarcerated for doing what the Bible commands them to do."
The law strengthens protections for abused children, particularly infants and toddlers as well as children with disabilities. Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden spearheaded the legislation, which was signed by Gov. Jack Markell Sept. 12.
"The safety and well-being of our children is paramount," Markell said. "While we already have many protections in place, this bill further strengthens and expands those efforts. Our children rely on us to shield them from harm and hold those who hurt them accountable, and we continue to work together to live up to that expectation."
Pro-family groups, however, are concerned about the portion of the law that defines physical injury as "any impairment of physical condition or pain." Spanking, they say, can cause a child temporary pain as a deterrent to bad behavior.
Dee Black, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association, said Delaware has become "the first state in the nation to effectively outlaw corporal discipline of children by their parents."
"Home School Legal Defense Association opposed this bill as a violation of the right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children, including the long-recognized right to administer reasonable corporal discipline," Black said. "HSLDA worked with the Delaware Home Education Association and the Delaware Family Policy Council in an effort to bring about a defeat of this legislation."
Supporters of the law say it was not aimed at parents who spank their children.
"This will not do anything to interfere with a parent's right or ability to parent as they see fit," Biden said, "but it also makes clear that if you abuse a child in any way, shape or form, we're going to have a statute that we're going to be able to use to protect kids."
Though child abuse has long been a crime in Delaware, perpetrators were prosecuted under the same laws as those who abuse adults. The new law creates the offense of child abuse on three levels.
Individuals convicted of recklessly or intentionally causing serious physical injuries to a child will be charged with first-degree child abuse and will face a maximum of 25 years in prison, according to the new law.
People who injure children age 3 and under or children with significant intellectual or developmental disabilities will be charged with second-degree child abuse and face a maximum two-year jail term.
Under the new law, individuals who cause physical injury to a child will be charged with third-degree child abuse and will face a maximum prison term of one year and a maximum fine of $3,200.
Nicole Theis, president of Delaware Family Policy Council, expressed concern that the law's vague language and the subjective word "pain" could be used to prosecute parents who spank their children.
"The fact of the matter is that it's written into the law and it very much could be interpreted as prohibiting spanking," Theis said, according to The New American.
"... While we appreciate that it was not the intent of lawmakers to criminalize spanking, we hope that it bides us a little time to make an amendment to the law," Theis said.
Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College in Louisville, Ky., and a frequent commentator on cultural issues, agreed with the assessment that Delaware effectively has become the first state to outlaw spanking.
"Spanking (when done correctly) causes pain, and pain is precisely what this law aims to prohibit," he wrote Sept. 27 at dennyburk.com.
Burk listed these verses as examples of the biblical instruction to discipline children physically:
-- "He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently," Proverbs 13:24.
-- "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him," Proverbs 22:15.
-- "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death," Proverbs 23:13-14.
-- "The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother," Proverbs 29:15.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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