Blattert v. State

Decision Date15 June 2022
Docket NumberCourt of Appeals Case No. 21A-CR-1082
Citation190 N.E.3d 417
Parties Scott A. BLATTERT, Jr., Appellant-Defendant, v. STATE of Indiana, Appellee-Plaintiff.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court

Attorney for Appellant: David A. Smith, McIntyre & Smith, Bedford, Indiana

Attorneys for Appellee: Theodore E. Rokita, Attorney General of Indiana, Angela N. Sanchez, Assistant Chief Counsel of Appeals, Indianapolis, Indiana

Molter, Judge.

[1] The State of Indiana charged Scott A. Blattert, Jr. with aggravated battery (Level 3 felony), strangulation (Level 6 felony), five counts of domestic battery resulting in bodily injury to a person less than fourteen years of age (Level 5 felony), and three counts of domestic battery resulting in moderate bodily injury (Level 6 felony). The charges were based on the allegation that Blattert repeatedly punished his children by beating and strangling them. He claims a defense under Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"), Ind. Code §§ 34-13-9-0.7 to -11, which provides a defense to criminal prosecutions that substantially burden religious exercise unless the State shows the prosecutions are the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.

[2] Blattert is a member of the Ellettsville Church of Christ who believes he must follow God's commands as conveyed through the Bible. He understands one of those commands to be that he discipline his children with corporal punishment as he sees fit, even if that includes punching them in the face, striking their heads with his elbow, and choking them, as the State alleges he has done. Blattert argues he must be permitted to present a RFRA defense to a jury because the statutes he is charged with violating substantially burden his religious exercise. But the trial court granted the State's motion in limine to exclude Blattert's RFRA defense at trial because protecting Blattert's children from physical abuse is a compelling governmental interest and this prosecution is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Because we agree, we affirm and remand for further proceedings.

Facts and Procedural History

[3] In the fall of 2019, the Indiana Department of Child Services ("DCS") investigated a report that Blattert had physically abused his children. At the time, he lived in Springville, Indiana with his wife and nine children. The investigation revealed a video of Blattert striking his fourteen-year-old daughter with a belt twenty-five times. The video also depicted him punching his daughter in the face, pushing her to the ground, holding her down, and striking her on the back of her head with his elbow, all of which Blattert contends was appropriate parental discipline.

[4] Shortly after, two of Blattert's teenage daughters were forensically interviewed. The eldest daughter, H.B., reported that Blattert and his wife disciplined their children with industrial-grade glue sticks. After experimenting with wooden spoons and dowel rods, Blattert allegedly settled on punishing the children with glue sticks because they caused the most pain while bruising the children the least. Also, H.B. disclosed that her mother would keep a list of the children's transgressions throughout the day and provide that list to Blattert when he returned home from work so that he could discipline them. He would often use glue sticks, his belt, or his hand to do so.

[5] H.B. stated that two of her brothers received the most frequent punishment from Blattert. She described one incident in which Blattert grabbed the boys by the fronts of their necks and slammed them against a wall for misbehaving during one of their mother's religious discussions. She reported that her fourteen-year-old sister, A.B., received more violent punishment from Blattert because she talked back to or glared at him. At one point, Blattert allegedly choked A.B. with his hands and forced her face into a cushion so that she could not breathe. During her separate forensic interview, A.B. disclosed these same incidents of alleged physical abuse.

[6] To conceal their abusive practices, Blattert and his wife allegedly instructed the children to "never speak of [their] punishment[s] to DCS or [the] police because it [would] ruin the whole family." Appellant's App. Vol. 2 at 25. Moreover, after DCS visited the Blattert family in the spring of 2019, Blattert allegedly struck H.B. and A.B. repeatedly with his belt because they disclosed too much information to DCS. He also allegedly moved the family to their current residence because a DCS employee moved into their old neighborhood. Blattert and his wife reportedly told the children that DCS "work[ed] against religious people." Id. at 24.

[7] The Blattert family attends Ellettsville Church of Christ, which relies on teachings from the Bible. Blattert believes "the Bible is the word of God" and he must "do what Christ commands"—including practicing corporal punishment. Tr. at 42. He compares physical punishment to the "Rod of Correction" and describes the rod as an "abstract form," which can include the authority or discretion of a father to discipline his family. Id.

[8] The State charged Blattert with aggravated battery, strangulation, and eight counts of domestic battery. The charges alleged acts of physical abuse against five of Blattert's nine children. In the fall of 2020, Blattert filed a notice that set forth his intent "to invoke the privileges and immunities established" under Indiana's RFRA. Appellant's App. Vol. 2 at 110. The State then filed a motion in limine asking the trial court to strike the defense.

[9] The trial court held a hearing on the motion in limine, which included extensive legal argument and Blattert's testimony about his religious beliefs and exercise. Following the hearing, the court granted the State's motion insofar as it precluded Blattert from asserting a RFRA defense based on its conclusion that the State's protection of children from physical abuse is a compelling governmental interest, and this prosecution is the least restrictive means of advancing that interest. Blattert now challenges that ruling through this interlocutory appeal.

Discussion and Decision

[10] Under Indiana's RFRA, "a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability," unless it "demonstrates that application of the burden to the person" is: (1) "in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest" and (2) "the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." Ind. Code § 34-13-9-8. RFRA does not exempt criminal statutes, so defendants may raise a RFRA defense in criminal prosecutions. Tyms-Bey v. State , 69 N.E.3d 488, 490 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017), trans. denied.

[11] A party establishes a prima facie RFRA defense by showing the disputed governmental action substantially burdens a sincerely held religious belief. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. , 573 U.S. 682, 705, 134 S.Ct. 2751, 189 L.Ed.2d 675 (2014).1 Then the burden shifts to the government to establish that a compelling governmental interest is "satisfied through application of the challenged law ‘to the person’—the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of religion is being substantially burdened." Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal , 546 U.S. 418, 420, 126 S.Ct. 1211, 163 L.Ed.2d 1017 (2006). Further, the government must establish that the substantial burden is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Ind. Code § 34-13-9-8 ; see Hobby Lobby , 573 U.S. at 728, 134 S.Ct. 2751. If the party asserting RFRA meets its prima facie burden, and the government does not meet its burden, then "the court ... shall allow a defense ... and shall grant appropriate relief against the governmental entity." Ind. Code § 34-13-9-10(a).

[12] Blattert contends that even if his behavior when physically disciplining his children was unreasonable as a matter of criminal law, RFRA precludes a jury from convicting him of a crime because the discipline was an exercise of his sincerely held religious beliefs. The State responds that RFRA does not apply because limiting Blattert's discipline to reasonable force does not substantially burden his religious exercise, and, even if it did, the State's prosecution here is the least restrictive means to further its compelling interest in protecting Blattert's children from abuse. Without deciding whether the State's prosecution substantially burdens Blattert's religious exercise, we agree with the State insofar as we hold that its prosecution is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest, and RFRA therefore does not apply as a matter of law.

I. Blattert's Prima Facie Burden

[13] Blattert contends he satisfied his prima facie burden by testifying he belongs to the Ellettsville Church of Christ; that his church relies on biblical teachings for religious instruction on how to live one's life; that he must follow God's commands as conveyed through the Bible; and that those commands include physically punishing his children as he sees fit. He argues the conduct the State alleges—punching his children in the face, striking their heads with his elbow, and choking them—all falls within the authority God commands him to exercise, and by prosecuting him the State is burdening his sincerely held religious beliefs. Because we can decide this case on other grounds, we assume, without deciding, that Blattert's testimony satisfies his prima facie burden to establish the State is substantially burdening his religious exercise. See, e.g. , Tyms-Bey , 69 N.E.3d at 490 ("We will assume solely for argument's sake that Tyms-Bey pleaded a RFRA defense properly and met his burden of showing that this prosecution substantially burdens his exercise of religion.").

II. State's Burden

[14] The burden then shifts to the State to show this prosecution is the least restrictive means to...

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