The 7-year-old boy had a total of 36 deep purple bruises across his back, on his arm and on his thigh.
He had a loop mark on his ear that, court records say, was from the small hook of a plastic hanger that his mother had used to beat him.
When the boy’s elementary school teacher patted him on the back, he flinched. The state Department of Child Services was then called to the Indianapolis school.
According to a probable cause affidavit, the boy’s mother, Kin Park Thaing, hit the boy multiple times with a coat hanger after she became very angry with him one night.
Thaing, 30, has been charged with battery on a person less than 14 years old and neglect of a dependent, both of which are felonies. In August, a judge denied her request to dismiss the charges.
In July, Thaing had asked for the charges to be dismissed. Her reason: Indiana’s religious freedom law protects her from prosecution, she claimed.
Enacted last year, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act says the government must first prove a compelling interest before it intrudes on someone’s religious liberty, and it must do so in the least restrictive way.
Thaing’s case, according to Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry, is the first time the new religious freedom law has been cited to justify punishing a child.
Her Christian beliefs were the “guiding values” that influenced her behavior when she punished her son on Feb. 3, according to the motion to dismiss filed by her attorney, Greg Bowes.
It also cited verses from Proverbs 23:13-14: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.”
Court records say Thaing became angry after she saw her son and her 3-year-old daughter showing each other their private parts in the upstairs bathroom. She saw a hanger and hit both children with it, according to the affidavit. Speaking with detectives through a translator, Thaing said she didn’t hit her daughter as hard as she did her son.
Thaing then took the children downstairs and told them to pray for forgiveness, the affidavit said.
She believed she needed to take “strong corrective action” to save her daughter from her son’s harmful behavior, according to the motion to dismiss. Otherwise, her son “would not earn his salvation with God after his death.”
The force that Thaing used is a “reasonable exercise of her parental right to choose how to rear her children,” her attorney argued, citing an Indiana law that says parents can use reasonable punishment necessary for their children’s “proper control, training and education.”
Curry, the county prosecutor, told The Washington Post that there is no definitive line between what is considered reasonable punishment and what isn’t.
“In our mind, what would make it unreasonable is the severity of the injuries that resulted to the child’s [being] subjected to that,” Curry said.
The founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel agreed, saying the child’s bruises, shown in a picture published by the Indianapolis Star, were “quite shocking.”
“It doesn’t seem to be, at least in my view, a reasonable level of corporal punishment,” said Mat Staver, whose Christian legal nonprofit advocates for religious freedom.
Staver said parents can cite Indiana’s religious freedom law as a basis for “reasonable corporal punishment.” Whether a punishment is reasonable is for a jury or a judge to determine.
“You have to have some kind of limitations on the extent to which corporal punishment is administered,” said Staver, whose legal organization represented Kim Davis, the Kentucky court clerk who refused to grant same-sex couples marriage licenses after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last year.
In a brief opposing the motion to dismiss, Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Matt Savage argued that state law does not protect Thaing from prosecution.
“Reasonable corporal punishment” is allowed under Indiana law, and the government has a compelling interest in “protecting the welfare of children,” according to the brief.
“When perpetrators of violence against children are prosecuted and ultimately punished, the government protects specific children who are victims of the immediate crime and the community in general, who may be potential victims of future crimes committed by the offender,” the brief states.
Indiana’s controversial religious freedom law, which Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed last year, ignited several protests and placed the largely conservative state in the national spotlight. Convention organizers and businesses threatened to cancel plans in Indiana amid concerns about discrimination.
Critics of the bill, more commonly known as RFRA, said it would allow businesses to discriminate against members of the LGBT community.
Pence, now the Republican party’s vice-presidential candidate, defended the bill, saying there had been a misunderstanding about its intent. Pence later signed a new version of RFRA that included language clarifying that businesses and service providers cannot use the law to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Curry, the county prosecutor, said his office had warned legislators that the law also will be used to excuse what is otherwise considered a crime. He said his office urged lawmakers to exempt criminal statutes from the application of the law, but that did not happen.
Since the bill was passed, it has been used to challenge Indiana’s marijuana laws. Last summer, the First Church of Cannabis filed a lawsuit in Indianapolis, arguing that it is a real religion and, therefore, is protected under RFRA, the Star reported.
Thaing, a Burmese refugee, is scheduled for a jury trial in October, according to an online court docket. She had taken parenting classes on teaching children good behavior without physical punishment, according to court records.
In an interview with Indianapolis detectives, the boy said his mother used to hit him with a hanger when he was in trouble, and the last time it happened was when he was 6. He kept repeating that he doesn’t know how he ended up with injuries on his back, according to the affidavit.
The boy’s father, Dhanng Ling, who spoke with detectives through an interpreter, said that his wife told him she had hit the kids for doing what they weren’t supposed to be doing, according to the affidavit.
In the middle of the interview, Ling became upset and started crying, repeating over and over that his wife was so angry when she talked about hitting their children.
The boy and his two younger sisters were placed in the custody of the Department of Child Services after their mother was charged, but it’s unclear where they are now.