ATLANTA — A judge put 41 children in foster care for a year Wednesday after their parents refused to stop whipping them in church and forcing them to marry.
"I hate to see these children jeopardized by what I consider to be a cult," Juvenile Court Judge Sanford Jones said.
The decision followed a two-day hearing into practices at the House of Prayer, led by the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr.
The judge was told about a 7-year-old left with welts and bruises and a 10-year-old with open wounds on his belly and side. A former church member testified that she was forced to marry at 15 and was beaten when she refused to have sex with her 23-year-old husband.
Allen has said the beatings are simple discipline.
"The Bible says that if you spare the rod, you're going to spoil the child," he said last week. "I have the Scriptures that give me the right to do it."
The 130-member, nondenominational church was put in the spotlight after children complained they were hit with sticks, switches and belts in front of the congregation, sometimes by their parents, sometimes by other church members.
Forty-one of the children in the all-black congregation, ranging in age from a few months to 17 years old, were taken from their parents over the last two weeks. Police have charged Allen, 68, and six church members with inflicting or allowing excessive beatings of two boys.
The judge said the youngsters' parents--four couples and a single father--could have their children back if they agreed to four conditions: no marriages for anyone under 16; no missing school after late-night church events; no physical discipline by anyone else; and no church beatings.
"I'm not saying you can't whip your children, I'm just saying you can't leave marks like this on them," Jones said.
The parents refused to agree to the conditions.
"I'm not going to let anyone tell me how long my children can stay in church," Sharon Duncan said. "It's my prerogative."
Social workers said the boys were beaten at church for misbehaving in school. The 7-year-old said he was held in the air by three adults while his uncle whipped him with a switch as Allen stood by, giving instructions.
"If the white society doesn't want to whip their children, that's their business," said Allen, who was sentenced to 30 days in jail in 1993 for ordering a woman to beat her daughter.
The preacher is also accused of arranging marriages for girls after they turn 14, telling them they have to get married so they do not become burdens to their families. Georgia prohibits marriage before 16, but the church conducts the ceremonies in Alabama.
The parents represented themselves at the hearing, saying the state had no right to interfere with their religious practices. They said no child is permanently injured and the bruises go away.
After seeing pictures of a young boy's torso covered in bloody welts, the judge asked David Duncan, one of the parents facing charges, if he thought the beatings constitute abuse. "The only way I can answer that, sir, is that we're going to raise our children according to the Bible," he said.
"Well, the good Lord isn't deciding whether you get your kids back here. I am," the judge replied. "The Bible also says God told Abraham to kill his son, but that's not acceptable in our society."