Moral vs Secular Law

submitted by Barbara Lyn Lapp

The following is adapted from a presentation given by Barbara Lyn Lapp at the “Mennonites and the Family” conference, October 16, 1999, at the Goshen Mennonite College in Indiana. It servers to clarify her   position on non-compliance with bad laws, in light of recent cases involving Amish and Mennonites who lent cooperation to government kidnappers, believing they had a duty to honor secular powers.

There are times when secular government’s laws contradict the rules of moral conduct. I’m going to address today the conflicts faced by god-fearing parents when forced to make the choice: obey God’s law, or obey man’s law.

Our forefathers experienced such conflicts in severe proportions. Today, and especially in this country, religious persecution is not so prevalent. But I have learned, through personal experience, that the government in the United States does indeed attack religious practices–practices held dear to those of us trying to emulate the life of the apostles and our Anabaptist forefathers.

In 1989, government agents, in the name of performing child protective duties, said that I had caused my son’s violent behavior by using disciplinary spanking; by depriving him of radio music; by not allowing him to date–at age 15; and by sending him out of the household when things got bad–which they said, is typical of Mennonite practices.

In the past 30 years many new legislative acts have emerged, which jeopardize the privacy and sanctity of the traditional family unit. Most significant is the 1973 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act which threw federal powers behind the state laws–and massive amounts of federal funding. Mandatory reporting laws followed, along with laws granting immunity from liability to persons making the reports. Then came confidentiality laws which pretty much insulated the child protective agencies from public scrutiny.

I do not dispute that some type of intervention from society is needed for children who are injured or seriously neglected by their parents. It is notable, however, that child abuse rarely finds its way into the circles of Mennonite and Amish cultures. (Unless you call corporal punishment abuse, which, in my opinion, it is not.) This speaks loudly for the value of family and church governance. The “brothers keeper” standards–so basic to those of us who would compare our lives with Scripture requirements–are also significant to the peace and well being of the broader cultures. It would seem that secular authorities should recognize this. Yet we are increasingly seeing conflicts with authorities as more and more laws interfere with parental choices.

When government attacks that which is good, it abandons its biblically sanctioned function of what St. Peter calls its purpose “for the punishment of evildoers, and praise of them that do well.” (I Peter 2:14) I believe we must then rise up with moral fortitude that enables us to resist, or disobey, the bad laws.

This principle was established in Peter’s answer to Jewish authorities seeking to silence the Apostles: “We ought to obey God rather than men,” he said.

Our Anabaptist forefathers proved to their death that they would not submit to ungodly demands of earthly governors.

Menno Simons said, “We teach and exhort to obedience to the… magistrates… in all temporal affairs, and civil regulations in so far as they are not contrary to the Word of God.”

Using Menno’s terminology, I would challenge parents and teachers whether child rearing is a “temporal affair.” In my mind, it is perhaps the most eternal duty God has entrusted to his creation.

Today I see far too much wrong being done in the name of biblical submission to authorities. In Pennsylvania last year, crackdowns on so-called “child labor” in Amish sawmills have resulted in Amish parents sending their 15 and 16-yr-old boys home from work.

My sister, in working with one of the parents, asked him, ” What’s the boy doing at home?”

He answered, “Getting on everybody’s nerves.”

These parents know it is not good for their teenagers to be out of work. The Bible says, “Through idleness of the hands the house droppeth over.” (Eccle. 10:18).

Why did the Amish parents obey the law? Why did they not tell authorities, “We ought to obey God rather than man?”

Only several decades ago Amish families took a principled stand against state intrusion on their education practices. The book, The Amish and the State, edited by Donald Kraybill, records the account of Ohio Amish parents, in 1958, challenged by authorities to bring their children to court for a truancy hearing. Three Amish couples, accused of child neglect and knowing that the sheriff intended to remove their sons from the home, went to court to face the judge. But they went without their sons. The judge charged them with contempt, fining each couple five hundred dollars. They refused to pay the fine, and were jailed. One of the fathers spoke at their hearing:

“For what reason are you holding us in contempt?” he asked the judge.

“You did not surrender the boy,” the judge said. “When the court makes an order it has to be obeyed.”

“According to the church and the Bible I couldn’t give my boy up. I couldn’t give my boy up and send him to someone else,” the father said.

“You must understand that your church rules will not stand in this action,” said the judge. “The rules of your church cannot prevail against the statutes of the state.”

Of course the judge was wrong. The Amish people did prevail, by standing their ground, and by their willingness to go to jail until the court rescinded the contempt charge.

In 1965, Iowa authorities attempted to round up Amish children and force them into public schools. The children vanished into cornfields as their parents called, “Springet, kinna!” (English translation: “Run, children!”) Photographs of the episode were carried across the nation in newspapers, and the scene of children fleeing in terror from authorities prompted public sympathy. Within days the governor of Iowa issued a moratorium against further actions involving Amish children.

In 1970, the year my parents moved the family to New York, they were charged with child neglect because they home schooled–a practice that was against the law at that time. They boldly proclaimed their right to that choice for their children, and continued the practice even with the threat of having myself and my siblings removed to foster homes. (I was nine years old at the time, and yes, we youngsters were prepared to run for the hay mows and cornfields if the need arose.)

Thankfully, the judge on the case was reasonable, and set the case aside awaiting the outcome of Wisconsin v. Yoder. Given the Supreme Court’s decision favoring the right of parents to follow the lead of conscience in educating their children, the neglect charge against my parents was dismissed. A few years later New York State laws became tolerant of home schoolers.

The courageous parents in these scenarios demonstrated that people of free and upright conscience need not submit to bad laws or bad court orders. Not only that, but they successfully thwarted the advance of government aggression which otherwise would have continued against their neighbors, and their children, and their children’s children. Today, as my children enjoy a virtually unhindered education in a home setting, I realize that we are personal beneficiaries of their unselfish stand for the right.

When I see the rapid decay of family values in modern society I tend to blame it in part on the advancement of anti-family laws. But I find it inexcusable among our people, so rich in historic example, to submit to the laws of the state at the expense of their families.

I will site here an example of a Pennsylvania Amish case I followed several years ago.

Sylvia Beiler, at age 5, had leukemia. She was getting chemotherapy at a hospital when she became deathly ill with pneumonia. Doctors agreed to withdraw her from therapy while she recovered from the pneumonia. The parents, meanwhile, contacted a Canadian doctor who believed he could treat her cancer without chemotherapy. With their local family doctor’s approval, Sylvia began taking the Canadian treatment and improved remarkably.

The hospital, however, obtained a family court order mandating the parents resume chemotherapy for their daughter. Fearing for her frail life, they refused. Police and social workers came to the Beiler home, took the crying youngster from her father’s arms, and placed her in foster care where they could enforce the order: 15 months of chemotherapy.

A year later, the treatment unsuccessful, Sylvia was sent home to die. I spoke to Sylvia’s father by phone during their ordeal, and visited the family at their home shortly before Sylvia’s death.

My communication with the family revealed several disturbing factors in the case. First was the government’s arrogance in assuming the role of parent, in absolute disregard to the child’s feelings. Second, and perhaps more shocking, was the Amish church’s passive acceptance of state involvement.

Mr. Beiler told me that his personal belief, as a father, was that he had to protect his child from the state. He had made that decision when he declined resuming chemotherapy. He made the decision again when authorities came to take the child. He ran, with child in arms, attempting to escape to the woods– until police overtook him and stripped his daughter from him.

Mr. Beiler, in my opinion, acted as a father should; as the Amish of the 60’s did; as our Anabaptist forefathers did; and as the saints and apostles showed us in scriptural examples. But he received no praise from his church. For his act of conscience, Mr. Beiler was admonished by his bishop, and required by the church to apologize to authorities for his lack of cooperation.

I wonder if our biggest challenge is not seeing through the hypocrisy of a highly cultured society where laws are deemed superior because of the democratic process involved in their institution. The reason I mention hypocrisy is because of the pretense of justice in our legal system, even as judges hand down commands that are destructive to the peace of God’s noble institution–the family.

Menno Simons would probably say, “It is a frightful abomination and raging terror to thus miserably afflict the most innocent, precious souls of our children.”

Are we willing to tell it as it is to the judges and magistrates? Or do we enter their courtrooms and legislative halls, putting on an appearance of dignity and calling them, “Your honor?”

Give “honor to whom honor” is due, says Paul the apostle. Where is the honor when so-called child protective workers take a little girl from her parents because they say Mom and Dad quarrel too much? This happened in a Buffalo, New York, a city near my home. She’s permitted to see them only once a week for two hours, in a government office building. After each visit case workers drag the three-year-old girl down the hall as she screams after her parents, “Mommy, Daddy, take me home.” When she gets to the caseworker’s car she gets quiet, curls up in a fetal position, and refuses to move. They take her to doctors to try to cure her mind of the injury they created. It is abominable.

Some have told me, “We have courts to settle disputes–don’t take it upon yourself to violate the law.”

Does this really change the duty of the Christian in discerning good from bad, and choosing to obey only the good? I think not.

In 1993, I was arrested, and spent eight months in jail, for not submitting to authorities when they wanted to take a teenager from my home. The 15-year-old boy, the son of a stranger, had found safety with my family after running away from a state institution. While in jail, during a press conference, I was interviewed by a reporter from the television program, Inside Edition. He asked me, “Doesn’t defiance of the law conflict with your Mennonite beliefs?”

This is a question I could answer in good conscience. “No.”

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