ATLANTA - A prosecutor accused members of an independent church of carrying out "an organized, brutal assault" by beating their children with belts in front of the congregation, leaving some so bruised they couldn't sit at their school desks.
The accusation came during opening statements Tuesday in the trial of the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr. and four other House of Prayer members charged with cruelty to children and aggravated assault.
State child welfare officials say church members beat the children for minor disobedience, kept pupils up late on school nights in marathon church services and drove girls as young as 14 to Alabama to get married.
The 150 members of the independent church have repeatedly said they have the right to discipline their children for misbehavior and that the church is being persecuted for its beliefs.
The defendants are serving as their own lawyers.
"We're not learned people, but we're plain, down-to-earth common people that look after our families," Allen, 70, told the jury in his opening statement.
The charges stem from the February 2001 beatings of two boys, then 7 and 10, who were allegedly held in the air with their arms and feet outstretched and beaten during a church service. The boys' school teachers noticed bruises on their chests and called police.
Prosecutor Phyllis Clerk said House of Prayer members carried out "an organized, brutal and cruel assault on innocent children."
Allen claimed social workers doctored photographs to make the bruises on the two boys look more severe.
After the beatings were reported, 49 children from six families were seized by child welfare officials. Most have since been returned to their parents.