Ghosts at the YFZ ranch

polygamyThe YFZ Ranch story was supposed to be about child abuse. No one will argue that when children are being abused, the state has broad powers to step in and stop the abuse no matter what justification is used to try to legitimize the abuse. No religious belief justifies any type of child abuse. As it turns out, the YFZ Ranch story may be less about child abuse and more about the practice of polygamy, underage marriage, and a state's moral objection to those practices. The story is dramatically shifting from the rather simple question regarding child abuse to whether a person's religious beliefs that polygamy is necessary for eternal salvation can trump the state's interest in enforcing the majority's views on morality.

The Salt Lake Tribune's Christopher Smart portrays the real life consequences of this story in all its vivid and troubling details:

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, who represents some FLDS members, said mothers were told to gather together inside the coliseum at 9 a.m. but were not told why. Once there, CPS said children 13 months or older were being removed from them. One mother had her 13-month-old daughter literally taken out of her hands, the legal organization said.

Two women who returned to the FLDS ranch, Velvet, 31, and Ruth, 34, later gave tearful accounts of how their young children were taken from them in what they described as a "cold" manner.

Velvet, who did not give a last name, said she has a 13-month-old daughter, Velvet Rose, who is still breast-feeding.

"I don't know where she is," Velvet said fighting back tears. "She's never had a bottle before. I need her back."

There are three possible reasons Texas could put forth for breaking up these families. The first and most obvious is evidence of abuse. The state has had an entire week to search for evidence of abuse, and if they have found any strong evidence of abuse, the state is either not presenting that evidence, or the media is not reporting it. Here's the Associated Press:

CPS officials have conceded there is no evidence the youngest children were abused, and about 130 of the children are under 5. Teenage boys were not physically or sexually abused either, according to evidence presented in a custody hearing earlier last week, but more than two dozen teenage boys are also in state custody, now staying at a boys' ranch that might typically house troubled or abandoned teens.

Two teenage girls are pregnant, and although identities and ages have been difficult to nail down, CPS officials say no more than 30 minor girls in state custody have children. It's not clear how many other adolescent girls may be among the children shipped to foster facilities.

That second paragraph brings up the next reason the state could take action to break-up the families: illegal underage marriages. A state may legitimately make marriage under a certain age a crime because it has long been accepted that people under a certain age are not capable of consenting. But does that make a break up of every single family within a community necessary? What if the family only had boys? Or what about the family with just a couple of toddlers?

Here is the AP again getting into the heart of this vitally important issue:

SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) -- The state of Texas made a damning accusation when it rounded up 462 children at a polygamous sect's ranch: The adults are forcing teenage girls into marriage and sex, creating a culture so poisonous that none should be allowed to keep their children.

But the broad sweep -- from nursing infants to teenagers -- is raising constitutional questions, even in a state where authorities have wide latitude for taking a family's children.

The move has the appearance of "a class-action child removal," said Jessica Dixon, director of the child advocacy center at Southern Methodist University's law school in Dallas.

"I've never heard of anything like that," she said.

Rod Parker, a spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, contends that the state has essentially said, "If you're a member of this religious group, then you're not allowed to have children."

The last and least mentioned reason the state could break-up these families is the fact that they practice polygamy, which is illegal throughout the United States. In fact, several Western states were required as a condition of their admittance as a state to ban polygamy in their state constitutions. Needless to say, the American government has never accepted plural marriages.

Would a state have legitimate grounds to break-up a family because the children are living in sin illegality? That's certainly the story the lawyers for the FLDS group are putting forward. They have some reason to have confidence in this argument since the Supreme Court has carved out a wide constitutional privacy right in 2003 when it comes to matters of the intimacy of a person's personal life (see Lawrence v. Texas).

If this story continues to become less about child abuse and more about the state's power to set standards of morality and the family structure, journalists should not expect the debate to come down on the traditional right-left divide.

Some liberals will look to this case as an example that the state has no business regulating marriage, plural, same-sex or whatever. Some conservatives will see this as an example of the state having no business regulating family life, particularly when it comes to religious beliefs (home schooling anyone?). Journalists should be alert to covering both sides of the story. There are no easy answers here.

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