State officials trying to close a Santa Monica church day-care center said Wednesday that they will investigate a report that the center has made a policy change that may exempt it from state licensing laws.
Leaders of the Santa Monica Foursquare Church said this week that they have "temporarily" required parents to stay with their children at the Weekday Sunday School, instead of leaving them in the care of school employees.
If this is the case, a state counsel said, the school may no longer be classified as a day-care center. The state won an injunction to close the Weekday Sunday School last week because it contended that the church was running a day-care center without a license.
"We simply have to find out what they are doing," said Lawrence B. Bolton, assistant chief counsel for the state Department of Social Services. "We have heard lots of rumors about a change in the operation. We want to verify them.
"If the parents are there with their children, then it is not a day-care center," Bolton said. "If the parents drop off their children and leave them in the care of a third party, then it is a day-care center--and the church must obtain a license to run it."
Superior Court Judge Jack E. Newman on Friday issued the closure injunction requested by the social services department.
Church officials, who kept the center open despite the injunction, denied that the policy change was an attempt to evade the court order. Co-pastor Ronald G. Norris called the parent-attendance requirement a temporary measure designed to protect children from the power of the state.
He added that church leaders are meeting every night "to determine our actions. I am prepared to go to jail if necessary to operate the Weekday Sunday School as a part of the church ministry."
Church leaders have repeatedly rebuffed attempts by the social services department to license the facility, saying that only Jesus Christ has jurisdiction over the church ministry.
State officials have countered that about 1,600 church-operated child day-care centers in the state have applied for licenses and "only a handful" have refused to obtain licenses.
"We ought to be clear on this point," Bolton said. "The state is not interfering with the religious beliefs of a church. Our role simply is to make certain that the facilities are safe and that employees working in the centers do not have certain criminal records, offenses such as child molestation and conviction for committing violent crimes."
In another policy switch this week, church leaders, prompted by the church's parent denomination, allowed the Santa Monica fire marshal to check the center for correction of 39 violations of safety laws found during an inspection conducted Jan. 14 by state and city agencies.
On Tuesday, Norris refused to allow the fire marshal to enter the school. Later in the day, he relented on the advice of Harrison Sommer, a church attorney.
Sommer said he advised the change because the church building is owned by the denomination, Foursquare International, not by the church congregation.
Norris said that leaders of the denomination favored allowing the fire marshal to inspect the facility and to oversee corrections.
Charles Duarte, executive secretary of Foursquare International, refused to comment on the denomination's relationship with Santa Monica Foursquare Church.
Norris confirmed reports that the American flag in front of the church was flown upside down on Sunday and Monday, until the Santa Monica police told him it was illegal to do so except as a national distress signal.
"We were unaware of the law," Norris said. "We did it simply to show that our little church was under distress."