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SD House narrowly votes down bill to add clergy to mandatory reporters of child abuse

PIERRE, S.D. -- South Dakota lawmakers narrowly voted down a bill that would have added clergy to the state's list of mandatory reporters of suspected cases of child abuse and neglect.

Under current South Dakota law, professionals such as teachers, doctors and social workers are required to report to authorities if they suspect or know that child abuse is taking place. House Bill 1230 would have added clergy members -- and comparable spiritual leaders of religions other than Christianity -- to that list of mandatory reporters.

The House on Monday, Feb. 25, defeated the bill by a 34-33 vote.

Proponents of the bill said that clergy members have bonds with families and children that may make them more likely to find out about abuse, whether from observation or a conversation with the child. But power dynamics may make clergy feel that they cannot report abuses they learn of to authorities.

"Many of us know that clergy do have a moral obligation to protect children, but duty and responsibility can be overshadowed by relational and power dynamics within a congregation or a community," House Minority Whip and prime sponsor of the bill Rep. Erin Healy, D-Sioux Falls, said.

Proponents also said that when incidents from within the church go unreported, perpetrators may be able to continue their abuse in their church or another, if they are moved, continuing the cycle of abuse and hurting more victims without legal repercussions.

Rep. Scyller Borglum, R-Rapid City, said that mandating reporting would lift a burden from clergy if they feel pressure from their church elders or community to brush a possible incident of abuse under the rug. She said the power of elders and wealthy, well-known families cannot be underestimated.

"The weight that elders can bring down on these pastors to not disrupt an established family, a well-known and respected family, an individual that has money -- that is a very, very powerful motivator and that is what this bill is driving to circumvent," Borglum said.

But opponents of HB 1230 said it went too far, impeding upon First Amendment rights to freedom of religion. Rep. Kaleb Weis, R-Aberdeen, said the bill was inserting the state into the church, and told them how to operate.

Rep. Chris Johnson, R-Rapid City, said he once met a Chinese foreign exchange student who said churches in China have cameras and microphones so the state can surveil the churches.

He asked, "Is this bill not a step -- even though it be a small one -- in that direction?"

Lost by only one vote, Healy motioned for the House to reconsider its vote. Her motion failed.