Mike Terry, Deseret News
Attorney Julie Balovich, representing FLDS mothers whose children were taken from the YFZ compound, speaks to the media after a hearing at the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo. She wants to reunite children and mothers.

SAN ANGELO, Texas — A judge wants to see if local LDS Church members would be willing to help supervise prayer services at the makeshift shelter where Fundamentalist LDS women and children are being housed.

In response, a local official of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said he was baffled by the judge's suggestion.

During a hearing Monday to address issues brought up by lawyers for the mothers and children taken off of the FLDS Church's YFZ Ranch, 51st District Judge Barbara Walther made the suggestion to address concerns of privacy when the FLDS gather twice a day to pray.

"The way our clients pray is sacred to them. It becomes less sacred when people not of their faith are monitoring them and their conversations," said Andrea Sloan, an attorney representing four FLDS women who sought a temporary restraining order for the right to pray in private, have phone access to their attorneys, and to stop breast-feeding mothers from being removed from their children.

It is one of a stack of legal motions that Judge Walther has to deal with as the massive custody case involving women and children from the polygamous sect lurches forward. She tackled only three issues during a hearing Monday afternoon here. The judge is the one who made the decision to keep all 437 FLDS children in state custody after allegations surfaced of child abuse on the "Yearning for Zion" Ranch near Eldorado.

Addressing the concerns about prayer privacy, Walther noted that there is a community of Mormons in San Angelo. The judge noted The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the same group but appeared to be seeking a reasonable compromise to resolving the issue.

"Would it be insensitive to have someone from that church monitor ... ?" she said, asking the guardians ad litem in the courtroom to contact local LDS leaders to see if they would be willing to provide a "buffer."

Child protective services workers denied that they were eavesdropping on the FLDS women involved, but attorneys for Texas child protective services expressed concerns about improper communications between mothers and children that could occur in private prayer times, which could affect pending investigations.

"If they cross the line or coach the child or make any kind of comment on litigation — all bets are off," Walther said.

The president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' stake in Abilene, Texas, which oversees San Angelo, was surprised by the judge's request.

"They think we're the same ones because we use the Book of Mormon," Charles L. Webb told the Deseret News. "I'm dumbfounded they would suggest that."

Webb said he plans to contact LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake City for guidance before responding to the court's request. The judge did say in court that if that fails, she would consider other options.

The temporary restraining order was requested by attorneys for Charlotte Johnson, Suzanne Johnson, Sarah Johnson, Angela Harker and other mothers of children taken from the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado.

"Some of Respondent Mothers are currently parenting children under ... 2 years of age and are still breast-feeding," the motion said.

Attorneys are pushing to keep a group of nursing mothers from being separated from their children, pending the results of DNA sampling under way in San Angelo. The judge declined to rule on it, saying it was something that the attorneys should be working out with Texas child protective services workers.

The women face a deadline of when the DNA samples are collected and the children are placed in foster care. They will likely be separated.

On the issue of the FLDS women and children being allowed contact with attorneys, the judge ordered eight phone lines to be set up in the shelter — six for the children and two for the mothers — with 24-hour access to their attorneys. Lawyers for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said the phone lines were already set up.

The women's attorneys said that when cell phones were taken from the women, they lost the ability to communicate effectively with their clients.

The cell phones were taken after members of the FLDS Church inside Fort Concho spoke to the Deseret News, complaining of cramped conditions. The women provided the Deseret News with photographs taken by a cell phone to show the conditions. Shortly afterward, they were moved to the San Angelo Coliseum, where some of the children have remained. Many of the women have been sent back to the YFZ Ranch.

In another sign that the legal fight for custody of the FLDS children is just beginning, the judge indicated that she had 35 writs of habeas corpus, challenging the state's decision to remove the children. She also said she had a large stack of legal motions to go over.

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As the hearing concluded, Julia Balovich, an attorney representing another group of FLDS women, tried to bring up a motion for a restraining order that she had filed. Walther said she hadn't seen it, but Balovich pressed her to consider the issue. It was then the judge stood up and announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, this hearing is concluded," and abruptly left the bench.

Balovich told reporters outside the courthouse that she wants to stop the separation of the mothers from the children expected later this week. She complained that child protective services workers aren't telling them when — or how — the children will be removed.

"I don't think it's in the children's best interests to be separated from their mothers, especially when they're under 5 years old," she said.

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com