Texas Court Rules Against Polygamist Raid

Admit it: you were surprised by the unanimous Texas court ruling that the state had insufficient warrant to remove children from the Yearning for Zion ranch (a.k.a. polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ compound) in Eldorado.

If so, you were hardly alone. For weeks, headlines have trumpeted the sex with underage girls, teenage pregnancies, and forced marriages that appeared to be the sect’s stock-in-trade.

The court, however, found little hard evidence that minors were in physical danger or were victims of abuse. The children were members of a group with an unusual belief system. But the Texas court, in line with earlier Supreme Court decisions, ruled that unusual religious beliefs are not cause for state action.

How could this happen? Dahlia Lithwick, on Slate, compared the Texas takedown to goings-on at Guantanamo Bay.

In both cases, government actors hurled themselves at a problem with the best of intentions. The prospect of averting just one more terror attack, or protecting just one more molested child, has a way of making all those technical details seem trivial. But both cases have been plagued by glaring errors of fact and identification: Names and ages and association were all jumbled up, hearsay and double hearsay piled up in place of real evidence.

Other commentators agreed. Noted CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin: “It was difficult to find out what was going inside that compound, and there was certainly ample grounds for suspicion, But it’s a good thing that the courts insist on a very high bar for the decision to remove children from their parents.”

As expected, comments on the blogosphere runs the gamut; but most support the court’s decision. Some because it affirms parental rights; others because it adheres to Constitutional standards.

In Reynolds v. the United States, the 1878 Supreme Court case that outlawed polygamy, the justices cited Thomas Jefferson’s distinction between religious belief and the actions that derived from belief. The former was protected under the First Amendment; the latter were not if they violated the laws of the state. The Texas court upheld the distinction between these two and found Child Protective Services had not proved the FLDS engaged in unlawful actions.

In a rush to judgment (and hastened by the lure of salacious storytelling), many journalism outlets did not uphold a standard of balance much less objectivity. How will they follow up the story? We’ll wait and see.