As members of a breakaway Mormon sect in Texas reunite with their children this week, authorities say they’ll proceed with the child-abuse investigation that caused officials to place more than 400 children in protective custody two months ago. The effort clearly will be much more focused, however, since the Texas Supreme Court ruled last week that the state overreached in removing children not in imminent danger of harm.
The state had argued that taking all the children in the church’s compound was necessary “because the culture of the sect led to illegal under-age marriage for girls and acceptance of that practice by boys, a pattern that the state said endangers both sexes,” the New York Times reported after an earlier ruling by an appeals court. Members of the church have asserted, however, that they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.
On Monday, in response to the Supreme Court, Judge Barbara Walther signed an order in San Angelo allowing for the children’s release — with restrictions on the families meant to retain open access to the children and to facilitate ongoing investigation — and parents began picking up their children from foster-care facilities across the state.
State failed to show immediate danger
“The high court and the appeals court rejected the state’s argument that all the children were in immediate danger from what it said was sexual abuse of teenage girls at the ranch,” the Houston Chronicle reported.
“The Third Court of Appeals ruled that the state failed to show that any more than five of the teenage girls were being sexually abused, and had offered no evidence of sexual or physical abuse against the other children. Half the children sent to foster care were no older than 5.”
The principal concern of Texas authorities involves marriages of adult men to underage girls in the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), which had established the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas. Such communities have for decades been on- and off-again subjects of investigations in Arizona, Utah and Colorado, as well as in western Canada.
Angie Voss, a Child Protective Services investigator who participated in the raid and interviewed girls at the ranch, “testified that she had found evidence that ‘more than 20 girls, some of whom are now adults, have conceived or given birth under the age of 16 or 17,’ ” the Times reported.
Investigating specific cases is expected to be more difficult as families return to the compound in Eldorado, but, as the Washington Post reported, “the judge’s ruling included a provision that child-protection officials can visit the ranch at any time. A spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said that some results of DNA testing, intended to establish who fathered children of underage mothers, might be ready this week.”
Church says it will counsel against underage unions
The case has led the church itself to declare a change. According to the Associated Press, “Willie Jessop, a group elder, told reporters that, from now on, the church will not sanction the marriage of any girl who is not old enough to legally consent, and that it will counsel members against such unions.”
He also told the AP that the church has been widely misunderstood “and insisted marriages within the church have always been consensual. He would not say whether marriages of underage minors had taken place in the past but said the sect as a whole should not be punished for the misdeeds of a few.”
Meanwhile, the attention garnered by the Texas case has led officials in British Columbia to reconsider whether charges could be brought against members of a polygamous sect there. The province’s attorney general has named a special prosecutor to lead a reassessment.
“The breakaway Mormon sect in Bountiful, in western Canada, has about 1,500 people including about 500 U.S. citizens,” the Houston Chronicle reported. “Attorney General Wally Oppal said the prosecutor will examine if there should be charges for polygamy, sexual assault, sexual exploitation or a combination of charges.”
According to the Canadian Press, Oppal indicated that “public concerns about older men marrying young girls and men with multiple wives at the B.C. polygamous community of Bountiful played a strong part in the decision to review whether charges of sexual abuse and polygamy are warranted against members of the religious group.” He told the Canadian Press that the issue has been confounding the B.C. government for more than 20 years, saying, “I just want to put the thing to rest one way or the other.”
Religious freedom vs. polygamy laws
The Press said that an earlier legal opinion “raised the possibility that anyone charged criminally under the prohibition of polygamy could defend themselves on grounds that their rights to religious freedom are protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
” ‘That’s the big issue, whether or not the religious rights that are conferred in the Constitution would trump the polygamy section in the Criminal Code,’ Oppal said. ‘I don’t think it would. That’s my view. I think religious rights, like all rights, are not absolute.’ ”
Another issue confounding authorities, the Vancouver Sun said, is that of prior judicial practice. It said “opinions in the case … have found it would be difficult to pursue charges, either because of the constitutionality of Canada’s laws as they pertain to polygamy or because prosecutors have gone so many years without taking action.”
Susan Albright, a MinnPost managing editor, writes about national and foreign developments. She can be reached at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.