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ACLU weighs in on FLDS raid

Published: Wednesday, May 7 2008 12:08 p.m. MDT

The American Civil Liberties Union said it has "serious concerns" about the way the government is handling the massive child custody case over the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch.

"The ACLU has serious concerns that the state's actions so far have not adequately protected the fundamental rights at stake," the national organization said in a statement recently posted on its Web site.

The ACLU said children have a right not to be abused or forced into marriages by their parents or anyone else, parents have a constitutionally protected right to free exercise of religion and to raise their children in their faith, as well as a fundamental right to due process of the law.

"Children may not be separated from their parents based solely on the state's disagreement with a group's thoughts or beliefs, religious or otherwise," the ACLU said.

The civil rights group said it is concerned about Texas authorities' justification for placing 464 children in foster care, by saying that all children at the ranch were at risk because they were exposed to FLDS beliefs on underage marriage.

"Religion is never an excuse for abuse," the ACLU said. "But, exposure to a religion's beliefs, however unorthodox, is not itself abuse and may not constitutionally be labeled abuse."

The decision to separate children from their parents without individual hearings and specific evidence that each child was in danger of abuse is another concern. The ACLU also raised questions about DNA testing being conducted on all of the children and parents being pressured to give DNA samples.

"State officials have an important obligation to protect children against abuse," the ACLU's statement said. "However, such actions should not be indiscriminately targeted against a group as a whole — particularly when the group is perceived as being different or unusual. Actions should be based on concrete evidence of harm and not based upon prejudice against religious or other communities."

The ACLU has not filed any legal papers seeking to intervene in any of the court cases involving the FLDS custody battle. The group did say that it will continue to monitor the situation, "including making our views known to the Texas courts at appropriate points in the judicial proceedings."

The raid began with a phone call from a 16-year-old girl named "Sarah," who claimed she was pregnant and in an abusive relationship with an older man. When law enforcement and Texas Child Protective Services workers responded, they said they saw evidence of other abuse — including teenage mothers. That prompted a judge to order the removal of all of the children from the ranch.

Authorities are investigating if the original call was a hoax, but attorneys have said that would have no bearing upon the child custody cases.


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com

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