The state was acting within its rights when it denied an application to become foster parents from a couple who practiced corporal punishment and supported the idea of physical discipline such as spanking or paddling, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled Monday.
In its ruling, the court acknowledged that the Department of Children and Family’s decision to deny the application placed a burden on the couple, Gregory and Melanie Magazu, who had said that physical discipline was an integral aspect of their Christian faith.
But the court said that the “burden on the Magazus’ sincerely held religious beliefs” was “outweighed by the department’s compelling interest in protecting the physical and emotional well-being of foster children.”
The court, upholding a Superior Court ruling, also said that “the department’s decision to deny the Magazus’ application is based on a reasonable interpretation of its enabling legislation and related regulations, is not arbitrary or capricious, and is supported by substantial evidence.”
The unanimous opinion was written by Justice Francis X. Spina.
The department was pleased with the ruling, according to a statement from a spokeswoman, Andrea Grossman. A lawyer for the Magazus did not return a call seeking comment.
Justice Robert Cordy, who wrote a concurring opinion, agreed the department was right to ban the Magazus from working as foster parents because their support of corporal punishment conflicted with the need to assure that children who were physically abused are not re-traumatized by being spanked.
But in the opinion, Cordy suggested the Magazus underwent a more rigorous background check because of their religious beliefs. He noted that the Magazus’ application to be foster parents was reviewed — and rejected — by the same office that approved Kimberly Malpass to be a foster mother in 2014. Last August, a 2-year-old girl died in an Auburn home and a 22-month-old was severely injured because of neglect by Malpass, a state investigation found, Cordy noted.
“The only flaw latched onto by the department was the plaintiffs’ explanation that their deeply held Christian religious beliefs included the use of physical discipline (albeit sparingly applied) in the upbringing of their children,’’ Cordy wrote about the Magazus.
Cordy added that “one is left to wonder . . . whether the real problem in this case was not so much the department’s concern for child safety but rather a disagreement with the plaintiffs’ beliefs regarding the upbringing of their children.’’
Joining the Cordy opinion were justices Margot Botsford and Fernande R.V. Duffly.
Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.