The seven-year-old Atlanta boy will probably forget one day what he did to earn the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr.'s ire. But the memory of the punishment that followed will surely live on. Police say three of Allen's flock, heeding the pastor's teaching, held the boy down in the House of Prayer church while a fourth whipped him with a switch. On Feb. 28, when the boy told a teacher he was in pain, she found welts on his body.
After interviewing that boy and a 10-year-old who also bore signs of lashing, Georgia officials removed them and 39 other kids from their homes in three separate raids in March. Officials with the Fulton County department of family and children services say they had offered the parents, all House of Prayer members, an alternative: they could agree to refrain from corporal punishment for two days during an investigation into the children's safety. All the parents refused. TV reporters captured harrowing images of crying children being dragged away. Allen and five of his 130 adherents were arrested on charges that they participated in or encouraged the beating of the two kids.
The pastor and some of those followers have been convicted before of similar charges. Even now, out on bail and awaiting trial, Allen, 68, vows to keep encouraging corporal punishment, which he believes Scripture condones. His nondenominational church is located in a mostly African-American neighborhood of northwest Atlanta, where the churches outnumber the stoplights. "We can't sway from the Bible because we're in trouble with the state," Allen told TIME on Friday, his followers standing around him intoning "Mmm-hmm." He says the country's notorious school shootings prove the need for discipline. And he points out that only two of the 41 kids were found to have visible injuries.
Research has consistently shown that the more often parents use corporal punishment, the more likely a child will be violent. But a majority of Americans still approve of corporal punishment. And 28% of parents hit their kids with objects like belts and paddles, according to a 1995 survey by sociologist Murray Straus. Corporal punishment is allowed in Georgia schools, and state law says it's O.K. to inflict "transitory pain and potential bruising" if they aren't "excessive."
Allen crossed the law's nebulous line in 1992. He was sentenced to 30 days in prison after a 16-year-old testified that two men held her down at the church while others beat her. The pastor himself testified that the beating lasted 20 to 30 minutes. The girl said he had "brainwashed" the congregation. Allen said she was being punished for sexual activity, a claim he made in the recent beatings too.
As in many clashes over corporal punishment, the public debate will come down to semantics: What does the Bible mean when it warns against "sparing the rod"? Does the law permit bruises that last overnight or just those that fade by evening? While the police measure the welts, the children sit in foster care.
--By Amanda Ripley. Reported by Amy Bonesteel and Greg Fulton/Atlanta