The district attorney's office said this week it will file criminal charges within a month against leaders of a Santa Monica church-run day-care center.
The announcement follows the court-ordered release Monday of documents seized during a Jan. 14 inspection of the Santa Monica Foursquare Church's Weekday Sunday School.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lee Harris said charges will include violations of state health, safety and licensing laws governing child day-care centers. He left open the possibility of filing other charges later.
He said his office's action would be directed at specific individuals, unlike the state attorney general's month-old effort to gain a preliminary injunction to close the center itself. A hearing on the state's request is scheduled for Friday in Los Angeles.
Harris, who went to court to obtain the documents, said the "overflowing carton" of parent records and daily activity schedules would be used as evidence to prove that the center offers day care and is not just a religious program, as church leaders contend.
Superior Court Judge Paul Turner ruled Friday that there was a "compelling state interest" in the regulation of the Weekday Sunday School and ordered release of the documents.
The records were seized during an inspection of the center, at 1220 20th St., by the district attorney's office, the state Department of Social Services and the Santa Monica police, fire and building departments.
The papers were held by a court-approved special master pending Turner's decision.
Harrison Sommer, an attorney representing the church, said the ruling will be appealed "as a matter of principle" on grounds that the investigation went beyond the scope of the inspection warrant.
The warrant was issued to the state Department of Social Services, which licenses child day-care centers. Santa Monica Foursquare Church leaders have said the state does not have the right to interfere in church activities and have defied repeated attempts by the state to inspect the center.
"You cannot use an investigation warrant to search and seize property," Sommer said. "The church was subject to a search and seizure at a time when no charges of wrongdoing had been filed. It is important to establish that church members will not be victims of unreasonable search and seizure."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Harris said the warrant was necessary because church leaders had refused to cooperate with state authorities since 1983.
"They will not even acknowledge that they are operating a child day-care center, although the investigation showed babies in cribs, diaper-changing schedules, children playing in playgrounds, mats for children to sleep on and baby bottles to feed the infants," Harris said. "Why don't they just concede the point?"
Sommer, a church member, said cooperating with state authorities on an investigation would acknowledge state authority in governing a part of the church ministry. "And we do not grant the state that authority," he said.
Part of Ministry
He and other church spokesmen have said the Weekday Sunday School is part of the church ministry and subject to the laws of Jesus Christ, not the state.
"This is not just an issue of church rights," Sommer said. "It also involves the rights of parents to apply biblical principles in the raising of their children."
Church leaders also have expressed concerned over state interest in reports of the center's use of corporal punishment, which is banned at state-licensed child day-care facilities.
Sommer said "the clear direction of Scriptures" condones the use of corporal punishment. "One of the things that has concerned us is the tendency of the public to think that we administer corporal punishment every day, all the time," he said. "The fact is that we use it only as a last resort, with the consent and knowledge of parents."
In his written ruling Friday, Judge Turner said he reviewed a videotape of the Jan. 14 inspection and found the investigators "at all times extremely polite and dignified. The only rudeness was displayed by employees of the school."
Sommer pointed out that the videotape was 50 minutes long, compared to the four-hour inspection, and was made by the district attorney's office.
"I personally saw children crying and parents denied access to their children, events not recorded on the tape," Sommer said. He said participation in the Weekday Sunday School, which cares for up to 50 children each day, has not dropped off.
He said that church leaders are making plans to correct 39 violations of Santa Monica fire and building code laws found at the facility during the Jan. 14 inspection.
"We appreciate the recommendations to eliminate any threat to the health and safety of the facility," Sommer said.