Would you send your child to jail?

Three religious leaders debate the morality of teen sexual-consent laws

To help bridge the gap between the “Have-Gods” and the “Have-Nots,” SN&R brings together faith leaders and pitches them the real-life ethical questions that spring from their communities. Venturing beyond biblical references and high-minded philosophies, our hope is to give voice to the complexity, insight and compassion inherent to any spiritual calling.

As a teenager, I was more afraid of my father than I was of God and state. In fact, I once made my high-school boyfriend jump off the second-story balcony when my dad, arriving home early from work, nearly caught us in the act. (Thank goodness for my skater boyfriend’s resilient landing skills.)

It never occurred to me that, beyond Dad’s disapproval, I could also be punishable by law. This was my thought when I read about the recent release of Genarlow Wilson, who at 17 years old was sentenced under Georgia law to 10 years in prison for having oral sex with a 15-year-old. Though the law has since been watered down, and the Georgia Supreme Court declared Wilson’s sentence “cruel and unusual punishment,” an unsettling haziness remains around teen sex: Where’s the line between consensual and criminal?

Last week’s featured guests, Fremont Presbyterian Church’s Pastor Donald H. Baird, Bishop Cory Jasperson of the Nong Shala Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Pastor Susan Hamilton of Parkside Community Church-United Church of Christ, offered a timely discussion on how they would deal with an underage son caught red-handed in the very situation I feared most.

Recently I came home from work to find my 16-year-old son in bed with his female classmate. Initially I was shocked; overall I’m worried. How should I proceed with this? How do I best approach this situation with my son? And do I say anything to her parents?

“I have an 18-year-old son,” Hamilton began. “These days it’s very difficult to be a late teen in American culture. There’s such a bombardment of a different set of values than what we hold in faith communities.”

Hamilton hasn’t had this experience (“thanks be to God”), but she prescribed “the big C word”—communication—for how she would approach such a crisis with her own son, to determine whether his behavior was “strictly experimentation, or acting out.”

As to whether she would tell the girl’s parents, “If I had a relationship with her parents, then yes, I would.”

Baird, who has three grown children, presented a similar set of explanations were he faced with a sexually precocious teen: “Either I failed to communicate with my son for 16 years, or my son is in open rebellion.”

Here Hamilton threw an unexpected twist into to the Land of Complications: Under California law, a person under the age of 18 who has sex with another minor can be found guilty of a misdemeanor. And as clergy members, they also hold the responsibility of mandated reporters, which means they are required to report any instance or suspicion of abuse.

“I say ‘Phooey to the law,’” said Baird. “I want to know what’s gonna help. Sometimes the law can help, and sometimes the law can hurt even worse.”

Baird has seen firsthand how following the letter of the law can ruin a life. When a man came to him confessing that he had committed an act that “would fall under the category of molestation,” Baird did the responsible thing: He called the police.

“Now his name and picture are on the Internet. His career has been ruined. … I don’t know that I’d ever do that again. I honestly believe that when he left my office, he really was repentant. But the police were not sensitive to the situation. I don’t think any good came out of it.”

Jasperson’s four children are all under the age of 10, but in his view, “By the time [kids are] 16, the preparation for making these kinds of decisions should have started 15-and-a-half years earlier.” He continued, “I really strongly believe that if you teach children the correct principles, they’ll govern themselves and make the right decision most of the time. I also believe you can change behavior more by teaching principles than you ever will by teaching behavior.”

For these reasons, the [Latter-day Saints] Church distributes a booklet when kids turn 12 that lays out standards of sexuality, morality and chastity.

“There’s a line from the musical Camelot,” Jasperson said, “when King Arthur tells Guinevere, ‘Don’t let your passions destroy your future.’ … I think there’s absolutely no substitute for making sure that you marry the right person at the right time in the right place.”

“The challenge we face,” Hamilton intervened, “is if we don’t report, and this girl ends up being pregnant, and she tells the story that the pastor was there. As a mandated reporter we’re liable up the wazoo.

“I would be hard-pressed to turn in my own son and a girl for this kind of act,” she concluded. “I probably would not.”

Jasperson was less dubious. Though his position as chief of staff to Assemblywoman Sally Lieber puts him up close and personal with the sad truth that “Politics generally tramples all the policy,” he nevertheless insisted on doing what the law requires.

“Assuming it was something that was required, I would absolutely do what was required by the law,” he repeated faithfully.

Baird, however, claimed he answers to a higher law. “My primary role,” he said emphatically, “is to serve Jesus Christ. All other covenants are second to that. That includes my covenant to my country, and to the laws.”

“I don’t necessarily disagree,” Jasperson responded. “But a major tenet of the LDS religion is that governments are ordained by God. We believe in sustaining, honoring and obeying the law.”

The Presbyterian Church, by contrast, “does not see the government, and the laws of the government, as ordained by God,” explained Baird. “We recognize there are governments in this world that are evil, and they should be resisted.”

“We recognize that, as well,” Jasperson conceded. “But we also believe that regardless of what government you’re living under, you need to uphold the law.”

Baird offered a classic example of civil vs. moral obedience: “Do you turn in your neighbor who’s a Jew, which the law requires, knowing they’ll be taken off to a concentration camp and killed, or do you disobey the law and protect them?”

“We’re in the context of our government here,” Jasperson replied, visibly losing steam. “And that’s where we’re at; we’d follow the law.”

Hamilton saw another option: discussing with her son, the girl, and the girl’s parents her position as a mandated reporter, and the consequences that could result from turning them in. “A ‘scare ’em straight’ type of technique,” she said. “It could be a sobering conversation to have.”

I shuddered, remembering the thump of my first love’s feet hitting the concrete. Scare ’em straight? I might have been scared straight into a nunnery.