HOUSE OF PRAYER CASE: 11 to plead innocent to child cruelty

Eleven members of the House of Prayer church, including the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., plan to plead not guilty today to charges of cruelty to children and aggravated assault.

The nine men and two women are to be arraigned this morning before Fulton Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford Jr.

The charges stem from an incident near the end of February 2001. Two boys --- then 10 and 7 years old --- were suspended in the air and whipped by several church members, according to a 14-count indictment. Both boys' parents are among the 11 charged.

Members of the small, independent church in northwest Atlanta say when they spank their children, they're following God's law. But in January a Fulton County grand jury indicted them, charging that they have broken man's law.

The church members face possible prison terms of one to 20 years if they're convicted on the felony charges.

Allen, 69, said Friday he will call for a trial by jury because he believes public opinion is on his side.

"I don't trust the judicial system," he said. "I trust more the people."

When the case goes to trial, which could be months from now, Allen and the others plan to defend themselves against the charges without a lawyer's help, he said.

"If my faith in God is just and I have a just cause, then the power of God will swallow them up," Allen said.

The charges capped a nearly yearlong investigation into allegations of abuse of the congregation's children, 49 of whom the state took into protective custody. All but 10 have since been released from foster care.

The pastor and the church members were arrested in March and April, after schoolteachers noticed injuries on the two boys whipped in front of the congregation. Allen and the others are free on bond.

Allen said he plans to cast the case as "an issue of religious persecution."

Fulton District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr. plans a different tack. "There is no absolute right under either the state or federal constitutions to violate the general criminal law --- even in the exercise of sincerely held religious beliefs," he said Friday.