ELDORADO, Texas — An Austin appeals court has ruled that Texas child welfare authorities acted improperly in removing more than 450 children from the FLDS Church's YFZ Ranch.

The 3rd Court of Appeals ruled on a legal challenge by a group of FLDS mothers seeking to have their children returned to them immediately.

Lawyers for the mothers said the ruling only affects 38 FLDS mothers and their children, but they expect it will be interpreted by the courts to include the hundreds of other children taken in the early April raid.

"CPS was not justified in removing these children," said Cynthia Martinez of the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid Society, which is representing the mothers. "They did not provide any evidence that the children were in danger, and they acted hastily in removing the children."

It is unclear if the children will be returned immediately to the ranch.

An FLDS mother, wearing a long brown dress, openly cried at a press conference this afternoon detailing the appeals court's decision.

Attorney Julie Balovich called it a "great day for families. We are ecstatic about this news. The court stood up for these families."

The ruling means 51st District Judge Barbara Walther has 10 days to follow the judicial order and decide what to do with the children. All of the status hearings scheduled for today and Friday have been postponed in light of the ruling. Walther and four other judges have been overseeing those hearings since Monday.

Balovich said that the ruling means, essentially, that the FLDS belief system alone does not constitute physical abuse to children.

The court ruled that removing children from homes should only occur "when the circumstances indicate a danger to the physical health and welfare of the children and the need for protection of the children is so urgent that immediate removal of the children from the home is necessary."

Texas CPS officials argued that there were five minor females at the ranch who became pregnant while 15 or 16 years old and said all children were in danger because of the FLDS belief system condoning underage marriage and pregnancy. CPS also considered the entire YFZ Ranch as a single household and argued children shouldn't be returned there because sexual abuse had occurred in that household.

The appeals court ruling said CPS failed to present evidence of physical danger to children who hadn't reached puberty, nor evidence that pubescent female children were in physical danger other than the "pervasive system of belief" condoning polygamy and underage females having children.

"The existence of the FLDS belief system ... by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger," the court stated. "Evidence that children raised in this particular environment may someday have their physical health and safety threatened is not evidence that the danger is imminent enough to warrant invoking the extreme measure of immediate removal prior to full litigation of the issue as required ... "

The court said CPS did not make reasonable efforts to consider options other than removing the children.

"This is wonderful. This is so fantastic," said Nancy DeLong, an attorney representing some of the FLDS mothers in the case.

"The people had an opportunity to put things in the Lord's hands and when He grants your prayers, you acknowledge Him first," said FLDS member Willie Jessop, who has acted as a spokesman for the church. "The people turned to their faith and acknowledged Him when the children were first taken and we acknowledge Him now."

One FLDS woman, who was headed to court in San Angelo this afternoon, seemed pleased, but reserved, about the decision.

"That's encouraging," said a woman named Annette, when told of the decision by a Deseret News reporter. "I'm waiting to see if it's really going to happen."

"Praise the Lord," said Eilene Jeffs.

"We're grateful for that," said Sarah Barlow.

"Anything positive," Jeffs added, as she walked into court for a hearing involving three of her children.

Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said the agency has just received word of the ruling. "We are assessing the impact it may have on our case. Any decision regarding an appeal will be made at a later date."

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, the Texas agency said its job is to protect children. "When we see evidence that children have been sexually abused and remain at risk of further abuse, we will act," it said.

The department reiterated it found "a pervasive pattern of sexual abuse" at the ranch that puts every child there at risk and referred to a "pattern of organized deception" from FLDS members during their investigations. The statement also spoke of the "bishop's record" it seized that refers to nine girls who were 16- and 17-years-old and living at the ranch who were listed as wives in the document.

"While our only duty is to the children, we respect that the court's responsibility and view is much broader. We will work with the Office of the Attorney General to determine the state's next steps in this case," the statement reads.

The new ruling does not affect an ongoing criminal probe into the activities at the ranch.

"I expect those investigations to go on independently," said Rod Parker, an attorney acting as a spokesman for the FLDS people.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is reviewing the court order, but he's leaving the response up to the state's Department of Family and Protective Services, his spokeswoman, Krista Piferrer, told the Deseret News.

"Our office received a copy of the court order, and we are reviewing it. We are being briefed by DFPS, who is determining the next step," Piferrer said, making it clear the governor was not named in the legal action.

"Was this a surprise? We're not a party in the lawsuit, so you may want to ask DFPS," she said when asked about Perry's reaction to the ruling. But, she said, now that the governor knows what the court has decided, "we have to look forward to what the next steps will be."

After hearing the news outside the San Angelo courthouse, one FLDS woman said, "There is justice in America."

The woman was standing with William Crouse, a parenting instructor from the House of Yahweh, which is another religious group in Texas that has come under scrutiny by state officials. Criminal charges have been filed against members of that group, alleging it is a "sex cult."

"People are finally starting to see through it," Crouse said. "They're attacking these people for what they believe in. It's nothing but malarkey."

"It's definitely moving in the right direction," said James Dockstader who arrived at the courthouse with his wife Nancy for a hearing involving their five children.

"We are so grateful someone will actually listen to the facts and look at us as individual families," Nancy Dockstader added.


Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com; amyjoi@desnews.com