The Texas state appeals court decision that state officials wrongfully took 460 children from their parents at the FLDS ranch to place them in foster care can be summed up in a couple of words: a belief system alone does not justify state action. Most news stories I surveyed this morning captured this essential part of the decision. Here is a clip of the excellent news coverage from The Dallas Morning News:
The mere existence of a belief system that may condone polygamy and "spiritual marriages" involving underage girls is not by itself enough evidence to justify the removal of some 460 children from the sect's ranch, said a three-judge panel of the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals.
In their unanimous opinion, Republican judges Kenneth Law, Robert Pemberton and Alan Waldrop said Child Protective Services had to show every individual child was at imminent risk of physical harm and simply had to be swept into foster care. CPS instead offered only sketchy evidence to a trial court last month -- and none about whether it explored less intrusive ways of protecting kids, the judges said.
To put things in legal perspective, this is just a Texas appeals court, not the state's Supreme Court, let alone the U.S. Surpeme Court. Also interesting is the DMN's effort to note that the panel's judges are all Republican. Is religious freedom and the safety of children now a partisan issue in Texas?
It is interesting to see how the media's coverage of this case has shifted and has become very sympathic to the families plight.
Time magazine even found the decision "surprising." They shoudn't have. The state's case started leaking at a very early stage in the process.
Not surprisingly, The Salt Lake Tribune appropriately picked up on the spiritual element of the story and some of the emotions expressed by the parents involved in the case:
She and Amanda Chisholm, also with the firm, were on their way to the ranch to meet with several women when she received word of the decision.
"I just pulled over on the road to Eldorado and started crying," Balovich said.
As Balovich spoke to reporters in San Angelo, FLDS women stood behind her beaming. Some were teary-eyed. "I was very, very, very thrilled and excited," said Martha Emack, 23, one of the mothers listed in the appeal. ...
The FLDS parents who came to the court hearings kept their composure throughout the proceedings. Prayers and faith kept them going, some said.
"We are a peaceful people," Emack said.
There will hopefully be more time for journalists in the future to write more about the spiritual aspect of this story. As hinted in the Time article, the FLDS group doesn't seem to be interested in drifting back into the quiet shadows of American society.
One gets the sense that the citizens of Texas will hear from the group again, soon:
The FLDS is not sitting quietly either. This week, FLDS leaders requested some 500 to 600 voter registration cards for residents at the ranch, a clear indication that their fight will spill over into the political arena. Those votes could well affect the political equilibrium of the sparsely populated county. It is a move that long-time residents have feared the FLDS newcomers might resort to.
Meanwhile, state officials have testified that the cost of the raid and subsequent investigations as well as foster care may be at least $20 million. Coincidentally, that is the assessed value of the YFZ Ranch.
CNN's David Mattingly had a very compelling story that broadcasted last night on Anderson Cooper's show about how the state was taking members of the FLDS sect despite the fact they had documentary evidence that they were 18 years old or older. If you saw the broadcast, it was hard not to be drawn in emotionally to the story and to have deep sympathies for the FLDS families stripped of their children.
Television news benefits from the ability to use powerful imagery that evokes strong emotions. Depending on which way the camera is pointed, a person or group may be portrayed as the villian or the victim.
FLDS is now generally seen by the media, rightly or wrongly, as the victim in this case. As of Thursday's appellate court decision, the group is seeing its case legally justified by the state's court system.
But the media shift towards sympathetic coverage for the families didn't happen overnight. One cannot help but wonder if the switch is partly due to the fact that the state targeted a belief system.