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HB 1212: Healy Wants Pastors and Dental Hygienists on Mandatory Reporter List

Full disclosure: my household receives a pastor’s salary and housing allowance.

The Democratic caucus usually writes much better bills than its Republican counterparts in the South Dakota Legislature. But even Democrats make mistakes.

Representative Erin Healy (D-14/Sioux Falls) is back with her effort to add clergy to the list of mandatory reporters of suspected abuse or neglect. She tried last year with 2019 HB 1230 and saw her bill fail 33–34 in the House. Rep. Healy returns this year with House Bill 1212 seeking to infringe on confidentiality pastors owe their congregants.

Representative Healy’s new bill differs from last year’s bill in ways. First, Rep. Healy wisely limits her bill to clergy instead of including church staff. Healy amended staff out of her bill on the House floor last year, and that amendment passed on a voice vote before the full bill failed. Healy also includes dental hygienists in this expansion of the mandatory reporter law.

Including clergy on the mandatory reporter list was a bad idea last year. It’s not any better this year. It still obliges clergy to violate confidentiality on the shaky basis of what courts will call hearsay. We rightly get worked up about members of the clergy abusing their power and abusing children, but dragooning them into agents of the state is not an appropriate or necessary response.

The South Dakota Legislature makes enough errors inserting its members’ church into state affairs. We Democrats should resist the impulse to insert the state into church affairs.


  1. Debbo 2020-02-03 23:29

    No. You’re wrong on this Cory.

    A pastor’s job is to care for her flock and every child is a lamb of that flock. Jesus held children in a special place of care. As a pastor, I always knew that if I felt a child was being hurt or in imminent danger, regardless of how I learned the info, I was going to report it. I told my congregations that up front.

    Children are more in need of protection and care than any adult. I would never be complicit by remaining silent with knowledge of harm to a child.

    Nope. You’re thinking is flat wrong on this. Flat wrong.

  2. Laurisa 2020-02-04 06:04

    As a chaplain who may also be a parish pastor in the future, I have to agree with Debbo and respectfully disagree with you, Cory (for once!) If I know of child or elder or sexual abuse, or suspect it, I’m going to protect that vulnerable person. Clergy are often in the position of suspecting or knowing about abuse and, therefore, have a responsibility to at least try to do something about it. It’s no different from teachers or medical professionals or other mandated reporters.
    Of course, we also have a responsibility not to fall prey to rumors too quick to report without substantive knowledge. But it should still be our responsibility to report.

  3. bearcreekbat 2020-02-04 09:30

    While reporting abuse is undoubtedly the ethical path, the problem I see with this proposed legislation is that it would add one more crack in the 1st Amendment wall separating church and the State. Requiring an individual (here a religious leader) to act differently than other individuals (such as non-religious group leaders, say a youth group chess club advisor) because of a religious connection seems a direct interference with the “free exercise” of religion.

  4. mike from iowa 2020-02-04 10:46

    Religion, as practiced in America by wingnuts phony kristians, needs to be interfered with. Especially since said wingnuts are turning a blind eye to evangelicals getting involved in politics wit impunity.

  5. Donald Pay 2020-02-04 10:56

    I agree with Debbo. People in abuse and neglect situations often can’t protect themselves and are too afraid, too ashamed or too young to put an end what is happening to them.

    I do think that people who are mandatory reporters should obtain some training. I was a mandatory reporter, as were most people in our agency. We received one hour of training per year. It dealt with how to recognize and respond to abuse and neglect situations. There are videos and training manuals on the topic if you can’t get in-person training.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-02-04 12:17

    I’ll talk all disagreement on this issue as respectful. Thank you, Debbo, Laurisa, and other conscientious protectors of children.

    I agree that we have a moral responsibility to protect children. I would hold in contempt a pastor who knew child abuse was taking place but took no action to protect the child.

    But should we create a legal obligation to report? Should we deputize pastors as agents of the state in this matter?

    If we accept the notion of a mandatory reporting law, I wonder: is there anyone else who should be on the mandatory reporters’ roster? Is there any citizen who should not be on that list? Why not make every citizen a mandatory reporter?

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-02-04 12:18

    As Buckobear notes, there is an important First Amendment angle here. What can the state require a church to do?

  8. Debbo 2020-02-04 14:15

    “But should we create a legal obligation to report? Should we deputize pastors as agents of the state in this matter?”

    Yes. Clergy are deputized as agents of the state in marriages and baptismal certificates are accepted as identification in some instances. So clergy already are. BTW, I think it would be fine if both of those were dropped.

    Clergy as mandated reporters would add another tool in the fight against church predators as well. The bishops, presidents, elders, deacons, etc., who cover up for those predators would be criminally liable. They should be.

    Training, as Don mentioned, is a good idea.

    I am deeply opposed to religious creep into government, but when it comes to protecting children and vulnerable people, it’s all hands on deck. No limits.

  9. Donald Pay 2020-02-05 13:26

    What we were told in training is that the government mandate to report is not just to protect children or adults who are being abused, but to protect yourself from coming under harassment or legal attack yourself if you report the abuse or neglect. Often what would happen before mandatory reporting is that someone would notice signs of abuse and confront the person. That can be a way that escalates behavior in unpredictable ways. It’s important to realize that your reporting starts a means by which authorities can check out a situation.

  10. mike from iowa 2020-02-05 13:38

    Remember what happened when Florida wanted doctors to question child patients about the presence of guns in their homes?

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