Rights of church schools questioned after child abuse charges. Oregon has taken custody of 57 children, charging they were systematically beaten for breaking rules at a church school. One girl died, allegedly as a result of abuse. Does separation of church and state protect religious schools from government regulation and licensing?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The violent death of little Dayna Broussard has created a furor in Oregon over where to draw the line between child safety and religious freedom. The 8-year-old girl, who authorities say died Oct. 14 of injuries from a beating, lived in a farmhouse near Sandy, Ore., with 57 children and seven adults - all members of the Los Angeles-based Watts Christian Center School and Training Program. Four adults pleaded not guilty last week on manslaughter charges in connection with her death.

State authorities have placed all the children in protective custody, charging that most of them were to subject to ``systematic beatings'' with paddles and electrical wire for breaking rules. Church spokesmen say the group has been misunderstood and maligned for its religious teachings, which emphasize strict discipline as the way to keep kids free from crime, drugs, and gangs that permeate the black ghetto of Watts.

The church, which is registered in California as a nonprofit corporation, operated an ``athletic camp'' called the Ecclesia Athletic Association at least twice in this semi-rural part of Oregon southeast of Portland. It was not, however, registered or licensed to operate either a private school, a boarding school, or an athletic camp, nor did it notify local officials of its intent to teach children at home, as required by law.

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At times, churches and religious groups in other states have resisted state regulation or licensing of their institutions for children, charging such oversight interferes with their religious freedoms. North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Missouri, and Mississippi have no authority to license church-run boarding homes, according to the US Children's Bureau.

But that may soon change in Mississippi, where a recent case prompted state lawmakers to reexamine licensing exemptions for such schools. In June, a Mississippi judge ordered a fundamentalist Christian boarding school to turn over custody of its children to state officials, charging the youngsters had been physically abused, medically neglected, and improperly detained.

The church leader refused to cooperate on grounds that the constitutional separation of church and state exempted his school from regulation. As a result, Mississippi lawmakers are set to introduce bills that would allow the state some oversight of church-run boarding schools.

``Our position is it doesn't make a difference if you call yourself a school, a boarding home, a church, or a camp,'' says Mississippi Welfare Commissioner Thomas Brittain. ``Someone needs to assure the public that children in this state are not being abused in violation of law and of their rights.''

In Oregon, the law allows for oversight of residential child-care facilities of all types. But because state officials say they did not know the Ecclesia children were in town, neither the health department, the school district, nor the Children's Services Division (CSD) contacted the group.

Church members are still ``sorting out'' what happened to Dayna Broussard, one of five children of Eldridge Broussard, founder and pastor of the Watts Christian Center. Meanwhile, they are standing on First Amendment rights, says spokeswoman Carolyn Van Brunt.

``As Eldridge has said, this is an American issue, a constitutional issue,'' she said in a recent phone interview. The girl's death ``must not be in vain, and we must finally know the answer: Is there religious freedom in this country or is there not?''

The group, founded in 1978, first hit the local headlines in June 1987. Described as a ``traveling school'' by Ms. Van Brunt, Ecclesia set up a camp in the area. At the time, CSD received two complaints from neighbors.

``We respond to abuse-and-neglect complaints that show a high probability the problem occurred, or where someone has been a first-hand witness,'' says Bart Wilson, county children's services manager. ``These complaints didn't arrive to that level, so we didn't send someone out.''

The group ran headlong into community objections with plans to house more than 100 people permanently at the site. By last October, the group was gone. Officials say they didn't know Ecclesia was back until members brought the girl's body to the local fire station.

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