The fathers – James Dockstader, Rulon Keate and LeLand Keate – say they all have monogamous marriages to women who were of legal age when they married. Each family lived in separate residences at the ranch and there is no evidence their children were physically or sexually abused, they say.
Their habeas corpus petition challenges the “illegal detention” of some of their children, who range in age from 1 to 9 and are in shelters in San Antonio.
Texas, they say, has “ripped apart families and illegally continues to damage and harm hundreds of children and parents” by “running roughshod” over their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.
Texas authorities have custody of 464 children taken in early April from the YFZ Ranch, whose residents are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The state argues the children were at risk because of the sect’s polygamous, communal lifestyle and a “prevalent” practice of underage marriage.
At least three other actions are pending before different courts in Texas that make arguments similar to those of the three fathers, who are represented by attorneys Amy Hennington, Kent Schaffer and Gerald Goldstein and his law firm.
The men object they were not individually notified of the state action nor allowed to argue during a “chaotic” two-day hearing in mid-April, at which a judge ordered the children to remain in state custody.
The attorneys contend their ability to fairly represent the families was “severely” compromised, especially for lawyers seated in an overflow auditorium.
Mothers being sheltered at the San Angelo Coliseum were not able to participate.
Tom Green County Judge Barbara Walther discouraged attorneys from cross-examining witnesses by saying “bless you” when one attorney said he had no questions, the lawyers note, and telling another who did that it was “unfortunate.”
“At no point during the proceedings was there any consideration of [each father’s] home and their abilities as parents,” the filing said.
Such an approach is “expressly condemned” by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling centered on presumptions about how parents might act versus how they do act, it adds.
The men argue there was no evidence that their children were in immediate danger, and say the removal has interfered with their families’ religious liberties.
FLDS members believe they should live as a religious community insulated from secular influences. Fathers are regarded as priests who lead worship services – which is now impossible.
The state “has no lawful justification for prohibiting these children from practicing their religion,” the filing said.
The state must prove that harm will result from conduct – not belief – that is imminent, not speculation about what might happen decades from now, it adds.
Child welfare workers “cannot justify taking these children from their parents because the state disapproves of their religion, and it cannot condition their return to their families on their parents’ abandonment of their religious beliefs,” it said.
The men and their wives have the “same rights as any other citizen to marry, procreate and have a family,” the filing said.
“The fact that one of their neighbors had become pregnant before age 18 hardly establishes an immediate threat in [their] homes.”