Texas law enforcement officials raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch in April after getting a tip that a 16-year-old girl was being sexually and physically abused there. The West Texas ranch is home to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), who practice polygamy through "spiritual" marriages. Girls are eligible for such marriages as soon as they experience their first menstruation; "Uncle Merrill," the ranch's leader, would decide when and to whom a girl would be given away. Officers found records indicating that at least a half dozen girls, ages 13 to 16, living on the ranch were either pregnant or had recently given birth. Officials ultimately removed some 468 boys and girls from the ranch and placed them temporarily in the custody of the state.
It is all too easy in hindsight to accuse officials of overreaching. It was not beyond logic that if pubescent girls were being forced into sexual relationships with older men that some other form of abuse could have been inflicted on younger children of both sexes. Had workers and police officers not acted, they no doubt would have come under harsh criticism. Yet it is clear they overstepped the bounds of Texas law, which authorizes the state to take children away from parents only if the "urgent need for protection required the immediate removal of the child."
Texas courts over the past week have concluded as much, leading to the return of many of the children to their parents. A trial judge has started evaluating on a case-by-case basis whether to allow pubescent girls to return to the ranch. This is the proper approach, one that both corrects officials' initial overreaction and properly allows the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services a significant legal role in ensuring the welfare of the victims in this case.
A spokesman for the FLDS said this week that the church will immediately stop forcing girls into marriage or sexual relations with older men. It is the duty of the state to make sure this is so. Religious beliefs and practices must be respected, but only so far as they abide by state and federal laws.