Virginia state Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), facing what he called "an overwhelming outpouring of opposition," announced today he will withdraw his controversial bill that would allow the the staff of a home for mentally retarded youths near Charlottesville to spank the children.
Since opposition to the bill surfaced during a legislative committee hearing Tuesday, Colgan and other lawmakers have been deluged with telephone calls, telegrams and letters from mental health groups and angry citizens who urged the bill be defeated. Until then its passage seemed assured.
The measure, which unanimously passed the Senate without debate earlier this month, would have granted the Mennonite-run Faith Mission Home an exemption from state lawthat bars corporal punishment in state-licensed institutions. The Mennonites had pleaded that unless they were permitted to administer "biblical displine" they would be forced to close the home.
Colgan said today he has asked Del. Owen Pickett (D-Virginia Beach) who agreed to handle the bill in the House of Delegates, to send the measure back to the Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee "where it will die a quiet death." Such requests are routinely granted by House members.
"I think the House would probably have killed it and even if they didn't it just isn't worth the adverse publicity for the home," Colgan said today. He introduced the bill on behalf of a Manassas parent whose child lives there.
"But I think people just don't understand this bill. It would set guidelines for using the strap and the paddle which is what they're doing now."
Daniel Yoder, director of the 17-year-old home, said today that Mennonite officials had not decided what effect Colgan's action would have on the home, which houses 54 people ranging in age from 7 to 28.
"If we're prohibited from using any effective discipline then we have no way of controlling the children," said Yoder, who told a House committee that some youths were spanked with a leather belt or wooden paddle in accordance with what Yoder called the bibical admonition to "spare the rod and spoil the child."
Dr. Joseph Bevilacqua, the state commissioner of mental health and mental retardation who had supported Colgan's bill, said he hoped state officials and the Mennonites could negotiate licensing standards for the home, which has been operating without a license for a year. He said the state would not allow the home to operate much longer without a license.
Judy Goldberg, lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union and the only person to oppose the bill before the House committee, was jubilant over Colgan's decision. "I think it's wonderful," Goldberg said. "I don't think the state of Virginia should be in the position of saying it's okay for religious volunteers to beat retarded children."
Among the mail the 100 House members received was a telegram from the president of the Washington-based National Association for Retarded Citizens who called the bill "a dangerous precedent," and a letter from Dr. Mark Smucker, a University of Virginia medical school professor who is a Mennonite.
"The thought of allowing people who operate homes for retarded children to administer corporal punishment 'with a belt' goes against the grain of Christ's teaching on peacemaking and child-rearing in the New Testament," Smucker said.