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Church Closes Day-Care Center Pending Trial

February 27, 1986|KENNETH J. FANUCCHI | Times Staff Writer

Church pastors and two center directors were arrested on misdemeanor counts of operating without a state license; religious freedom issue draws support, critics.

Church pastors and two center directors are arrested on misdemeanor counts of operating without a state license; religious freedom issue draws support, critics.

The Santa Monica Foursquare Church has closed its Weekday Sunday School pending a trial of four church members accused of operating a day-care center without a state license.

Harrison Sommer, a church attorney, said co-pastors Ronald and Linda Norris closed the center on his advice to avoid exposing other church members to criminal charges.

The Rev. Ronald G. Norris had said repeatedly that he was prepared to go to jail rather than close the school.

"The main issue of whether the state has the right to require a license for a portion of the church ministry is now before the court," Sommer said. "We see no reason to subject other church members operating the facility to criminal charges."

Pretrial Hearing Set

The Norrises and day-care center directors Marilyn Lumsdon and Dawn Sherman were arrested, booked and charged Friday with misdemeanor counts of operating a child day-care facility without a license.

They pleaded not guilty before Santa Monica Municipal Court Judge Laurence D. Rubin, who released them on their own recognizance and set a pretrial hearing for April 8. Sommer said that church officials are selecting a team of lawyers to defend the four.

On another legal front, Santa Monica City Atty. Robert M. Myers said that city and church officials will meet Tuesday to work out a plan of compliance with city fire, building and planning laws.

"It is standard city procedure to try first to resolve compliance disputes on a voluntary basis," Myers said. "Only if that process fails would the city consider other action at our disposal."

The city fire marshal has compiled a list of 39 violations of the state fire safety code in connection with the operation of the day-care center, church, church basement and garage at 1220 and 1224 20th St.

Violations at the day-care center, according to the city fire marshal, include inoperative smoke detectors, improper storage of flammable and combustible liquid along the side of the building, too many children in various areas of the center and improper location of the rear exit door in a hazardous area (the kitchen).

Inspection Ordered by Court

The violations were compiled during a court-ordered inspection of the premises Jan. 14 by representatives of the city, district attorney's office and the state Department of Social Services, which is the legal overseer of child day-care centers.

The inspection followed repeated attempts dating back to 1983 by employees of the social services department to persuade church officials to obtain a state license. Claiming that the state had no jurisdiction over church matters, the Norrises refused both to obtain a license and to allow state workers on the property.

Church officials had said they would defy a Los Angeles Superior Court order obtained Feb. 14 by the social services department closing the day-care center, but they closed the school Monday.

Sommer, a member of the church, said that the Weekday Sunday School had been open since summer, 1982, serving as many as 50 children at a time from infants to 18-year-olds. He said that church officials would never agree to operate a state-licensed day-care facility.

Coalition Formed

Meantime, the Santa Monica church's battle against state licensing has attracted supporters and detractors in the religious community.

The Rev. David Houston, pastor of Maranatha Christian Church of West Los Angeles, has announced the formation of an organization called the Coalition of Christians for Religious Freedom to back the Santa Monica Foursquare Church.

The coalition, which he said has a membership of 80 from churches in the Westside and South Bay, will meet at 7 p.m. today at the Santa Monica Foursquare Church.

"The bottom line is: who owns the children, parents or the state?" Houston said. "Our position is that Jesus Christ, through the Bible, has authority over every aspect of life, not the state. We are fighting for freedom of religion."

Supporters of Licensing

In support of state licensing is Peter Gulsrud, principal of Pilgrim Lutheran School in Santa Monica, which operates a preschool for 60 children.

"We not only support licensing of day-care centers, we insist on it," Gulsrud said in a letter to The Times and in an interview. "We encourage state inspections to make certain that we meet health and safety standards."

Betty Orum, director of the La Tijera Methodist Preschool and Child Care Center in Westchester, said in an interview that all 250 members of the Church Related Childhood Education Fellowship in Southern California are strong advocates of licensing.

"We have gone to Sacramento many times to fight legislative attempts to exempt churches from licensing their day-care centers," she said. "We do not see this as a religious freedom issue. Licensing is designed for the well-being of children while not under the supervision of their parents."

Of the approximately 16,000 child day-care centers in the state, 1,600 are church-run, according to the state Department of Social Services. Only a handful have refused to obtain a state license.

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