The sign outside the Atlanta church identified it as the House of Prayer. But for the children inside, the place became a house of terror.
In March, a judge placed 41 of the congregation's children in foster care because their parents refused to stop allowing them to be whipped in church-sponsored discipline sessions.
Appalled at such ritualistic punishment, many dismissed the group as an aberrant cult. And although most would agree that the lords of discipline at the church went too far, many parents still believe that corporal punishment is an appropriate form of discipline.
Indeed, the Atlanta case has helped reignite the debate over spanking.
Critics of spanking are now arming themselves with new studies that suggest spanking fails to correct behavior in the long run, and also may breed abusers.
Pro-spankers, meanwhile, see everything from Columbine-style shootings to dwindling respect for adults as proof that it's time to return to the "good old days" when parents and teachers responded to shenanigans by tanning kids' hides.
This time around, pro-spankers may have an ace in the Oval Office: President Bush also believes it's time to pull the paddle from the mothballs.
Ironically, Bush's vigorous support of corporal punishment runs counter to the country's gradual shift away from the use of spanking. Only 41 percent of parents reported spanking or hitting their children, according to a recent poll by Prevent Child Abuse America. That's down from 58 percent in 1988.
Three years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics condemned spanking, questioning its effectiveness and raising concerns about potential negative side effects.
Research has consistently shown that children who are spanked are more likely to suffer delinquency and depression and to hit their own children -- and often their spouses -- as adults. Violence, says Nadine Block, founder of SpankOut Day USA, begets violence.
But the kicker, says Murray A. Straus, author of Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families, is that new research in behavior modification suggests that spanking "does not work any better than other modes of correction and control." Worse, he says, in the end, spanking "boomerangs and actually makes children harder to control and less well-behaved."
Such findings, even in an age when many countries have laws on the books against corporal punishment, fail to dissuade everyone.
Psychologist John Rosemond, for instance, writes in his book Parent Power! that it "is possible to spank a child well, to do it right and to make it work." Rosemond feels so strongly about spanking that he devoted a 1994 book to the subject: To Spank or Not to Spank: A Parent's Handbook. "The problem with spanking," he writes, "is that most parents make a sorry mess of it."
Turning away from spanking as the first tool in the discipline belt, some say, has left American parents with a mess of disciplinary problems.
School shootings and the perceived rise in juvenile crime are symptoms. Laying down the law with kids is driving the resurgence of spanking sentiment, says Irwin Hyman, author of the Case Against Spanking. "Spanking is basically a punitive act," he says. This new push, he adds, "stems from political and religious ideology and going back to the old days when things were better -- and, of course they weren't.
"When events like Columbine occur, there is a tendency to demonize youth. People want to get tough with kids again."
The idea of getting tough with children is certainly nothing new. It's hardbound in the Bible. Proverbs 13:24 states: "He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him."
It is also one of most diversely interpreted scriptural passages. Some believe it suggests "tough love." And what the House of Prayer case illustrates is that many parents indeed hold a literal interpretation -- they believe that spankings are effective and ordained by God.
Even if that is your belief, Hyman insists that a spanking does not involve hitting a child with a switch or belt.
"When you leave a bruise on a kid, that's abuse," Hyman says. "Does God give you the right to leave bruises?"
In any case, corporal punishment may soon receive a government stamp of approval. President Bush, during the 2000 presidential debates, announced he'd back a federal "Teacher Protection Act," similar to the 1995 law he supported in Texas that shields teachers who hit students for disciplinary reasons.
If that happens, some Americans may see that as a call to shed the handcuffs of political correctness and to break out the whipping stick.
Block, a school psychologist, hopes parents, armed with the research, will continue to step up their use of spanking alternatives such as denying privileges and timeouts.
"I always agree with parents who say children need more discipline. In this country when people think of discipline they think punishment," she says.
"In the dictionary [discipline] means to teach," she says, adding that parents are often too busy and too tired "to sit with our kids, to be patient and correct them quietly." But, she says, "we need to do that."
Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel