Last spring, following reports of alleged child abuse phoned in anonymously from the road, Texas child-protection officials summarily removed more than 440 children from a ranch in Eldorado, Texas, owned and occupied by a branch of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — echoing the disastrous Arizona Short Creek raid of the 1950s in hysteria and government-sanctioned condemnation. It was the largest child-welfare operation in Texas state history, and the scenes of distraught women in prairie dresses and pompadours forcibly separated from their children and husbands drew international media attention. Local news outlets immediately piled on, engaging in prurient speculation about life on the compound — and particularly on those beds allegedly hidden in the back of the temple.
A district court originally ruled that the children be kept in protective custody, but the Texas Supreme Court eventually affirmed a decision by an appellate court allowing the majority of the Yearning for Zion kids to return to their parents. Child Protective Services does not have the authority to the remove children from a home when they cannot prove immediate danger to a specific child or children, said the courts — a decision that forced the state to go back and conduct any interventions on a case-by-case basis, with evidence, rather than wholesale based on conjecture.
“I think were it not for the efforts of ACLU and other like-minded organizations, the entire state of Texas would completely disregard the Establishment Clause,” says Patrick Filyk, president of the San Antonio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “`The FLDS` were people the state of Texas identified as people who had an unusual religion, and therefore were treated differently because of that.”
The Yearning for Zion fiasco didn’t poke the only hole in Texas’s rugged-individualist live-and-let-live mythos the past two years. Filyk adds that the decision of a state federal court in August 2007 to uphold a Texas law that added the words “one state, under God” to the Texas pledge of allegiance encroaches upon the separation of church and state.
“We need to stick to the First Amendment,” says Eric Lane, president of the San Antonio chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The more Americans understand that, the more Texans understand that, and the more they can appreciate how our founders were — because that has allowed our melting-pot society to live together. You can almost not have true democracy without first having a separation between church and state.”