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State Files for Injunction to Close Foursquare Church's Day-Care Center

January 30, 1986|KENNETH J. FANUCCHI | Times Staff Writer

The state attorney general's office has filed a request for a preliminary injunction to close a day-care center operated by Santa Monica Foursquare Church, which has refused to obtain a state license to operate the facility.

Deputy Atty. Gen. James E. Ryan said that he filed the request in Los Angeles Superior Court last week, seeking action against the church at 1220 20th St. and the adjoining Weekday Sunday School at 1224 20th St.

Judge Jack Newman is scheduled to hear the case Feb. 14, but an attorney representing the church said he will seek to delay the hearing.

The state Department of Social Services, which licenses day-care centers, asked the state attorney general's office to file the court action. The department has asked church leaders to obtain a state license at least five times since 1983.

Church leaders have rebuffed every request, saying that the Bible--rather than the state--is the sole guide for conducting a church-operated child-care center. They have repeatedly refused to allow social services employees to inspect the Weekday Sunday School premises, according to a court-approved inspection warrant obtained Jan. 8 by the social services department.

Accompanied by members of the county district attorney's office and the Santa Monica Police Department, social services employees used the warrant to enter the facility Jan. 14 in search of evidence to support their contention that the Weekday Sunday School is a day-care center.

"State law requires that anyone seeking to operate a day-care center must first apply for and obtain a license," Ryan said. "State law does not exempt churches from the regulations."

Attorney Albert F. Cunningham, a Montgomery Creek resident who is representing the Santa Monica church, said that the state licensing law violates the biblical beliefs of what he described as fundamentalist orthodox churches.

"It is a relationship problem," Cunningham said. "We believe that Jesus Christ is Lord in all things and he, in essence, gives us the license to operate. If we obtain a state license, then the state is coming into the church as boss, replacing Jesus Christ."

Cunningham said that he is contesting the constitutionality of the state licensing law regarding child day-care centers in a suit brought against the Department of Social Services by the North Valley Baptist Church in Redding.

He said that the suit, filed in 1984, is scheduled to be heard in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento sometime in June. "We basically are seeking to bar the state from applying the licensing statute to churches," Cunningham said.

He said that the law conflicts directly with churches whose doctrine includes a literal interpretation of the Bible. He noted that corporal punishment is an appropriate example.

"The Bible tells us that corporal punishment is the way to discipline children," Cunningham said. "Yet, under the state law governing child-care centers, corporal punishment is prohibited. The real issue is one of control and the independence of the church."

Harrison Sommer, a Santa Monica attorney who will work with Cunningham on the Santa Monica Foursquare Church case, said that the state law governing licensing of day-care centers gives the state unwarranted power to intrude into church affairs.

"As I read the law," Sommer said, "there is nothing to stop the state from trying to regulate a nursery set up in the church during Sunday school activities. Once you give the state the right to enforce a law one day, state authorities can come in anytime. This is a very serious First Amendment right."

Sommer, a member of the Santa Monica church, accused the state, county and city of conducting "a raid" in the Jan. 14 investigation that church leaders said "traumatized children" at the Weekday Sunday School.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Lee Harris, of the department's nursing home and dependent care section, said that the inspection on Jan. 14 was not a raid and did not involve any activity that could possibly have traumatized children.

"We have a videotape of the entire investigation," Harris said. "It is interesting to compare the tape with the wild charges being made by many church members, including one that police officers burst into the facility with their guns drawn. It simply did not happen that way."

Sommer also objected to the seizure of documents from the school and church premises during the Jan. 14 investigation, citing "clergy's privilege." Because of his objection, the documents have been placed in the hands of a special court master, out of reach of government officials.

Harris said that he has started court proceedings to obtain the documents.

A hearing will be held Jan. 31 before Judge Gordon Ringer in Division 126 of Los Angeles Superior Court to determine whether the records will be turned over to the district attorney.

Harris said that the documents, including records of children, their parents and center employees, among others, are needed to establish the existence of an illegally operated day-care center and to provide proof of other illegal activities at the center.

"For 2 1/2 years," Harris said, "duly constituted government authorities have tried to inspect the day-care center and have been met with resistance at the door. The fallout from that attitude is that there are no criminal or health checks of employees running the center, no inspection as to the health and safety regulations regarding facilities taking care of very small children."

Attorney Cunningham said that church-run programs do have standards for protecting children's health and safety.

"In the 2,000 years of the existence of churches," Cunningham said, "the churches have higher standards than the state."

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