Thursday, May 1, 2008

My professional take – FLDS, Army cases challenge us on religious liberty

From my May 1 newspaper column:

They look different from us. They dress differently. They’re standoffish. They have weird religious beliefs and social customs.

How many of these statements and more crossed the minds of many Americans in the days and weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, thinking about Muslims in America?

By actions if not words, we’re hearing or seeing the same beliefs today — over a splinter Mormon group right here in Texas.

It seems that the state of Texas, including the overworked and understaffed Child Protective Services and District Judge Barbara Walther are acting on presupposition and prejudice in how they have acted from the moment of raiding the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, compound in Eldorado.

First, the phone call itself that led to the April 3 raid on the FLDS compound.

Colorado court records show the calls made to a San Angelo domestic violence shelter were made from prepaid mobile phones previously used by Rozita Swinton. The Colorado Springs woman has been charged with making a false report in Colorado and is on probation there for a similar offense.

Teenagers, especially ones who are mad at their parents or other adults, do that. But, CPS and the Texas Department of Public Safety didn’t show much responsibility or initiative in trying to determine whether or not the call was legitimate before making the raid.

Then came further actions by CPS, many substantiated by Judge Walther, followed by other actions of her own.

First was the decision to separate the children at Eldorado from their mothers. If fathers at Eldorado had forced mothers unto either underage or polygamous marriages, of course, CPS would be right to separate both mothers and children from the men.

But, nobody has charged the mothers with any wrongdoing.

Instead, a surface interpretation of CPS actions would be that the state wants to deprogram these children out of their “weird” beliefs in an “extremist offshoot Mormon cult.”

The idea that the state wants to “deprogram” these 437 children is only furthered by Judge Walther’s actions.

She refused to take the time or effort to treat each child as an individual. Instead, in a temporary custody hearing on whether to keep them in state custody rather than return them to their mothers, she had one giant hearing for all children. She even called it a “cattle call” afterward.

If either polygamous marriages were celebrated, or statutory rape was committed, at the YFZ Ranch, then perpetrators need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Ditto if reports of broken bones or other, lesser child abuse against boys at the compound were committed. Even if the broken bones are not from abuse, but healed poorly due to lack of medical care, then child neglect charges should be filed.

And, even on that issue, The Dallas Morning News notes the injury rate of boys at the compound is in line with other rural areas:

While physical injuries can be an indicator of abuse, checks by The Dallas Morning News suggested broken bones for 9 percent of a group of rural children is not out of line.

According to the Web site of the Seattle Children's Hospital, about half of all boys and a quarter of all girls break a bone sometime during childhood. In 2001, about 16 percent of youngsters under 20 living on farms suffered an injury – the most common being broken bones, a federal study says.

Meanwhile, the story indicates that Child Protective Services is continuing to invent ideas first, then fish for justification for them afterward.

Carey Cockerell, head of the Department of Family and Protective Services, parent agency of Child Protective Services, has claimed that boys at the compound were sexually abused, but at a Texas Senate panel hearing Wednesday, had no proof to offer.

But, the FLDS members, especially before any indictments have even been issued, are entitled to the presumption of innocence just as much as anybody else.

Unfortunately, the state of Texas isn’t acting that way.

Beyond the legal presumption of innocence, all FLDS members, whether fathers, mothers or children, are entitled to their First Amendment rights, protections and freedoms. So, too, are Jews, the Muslims stereotyped after 9/11, the Hindus and Buddhists who moved to our shores later, the American Indians who still practice ancestral religions handed down for hundreds and thousands of years before Europeans came here, and even the irreligious.

At the time that amendment was drafted and ratified, America had more than just Christians. A number of cities had Jewish communities. A number of the Founding Fathers weren’t Trinitarian Christians, but rather Deists, the forerunners of today’s Unitarians. And through French and British philosophers, ideas of agnosticism and atheism were well-known.

Indeed, John Adams said, “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

From where I sit, though there really haven’t been a lot of legal test cases, the First Amendment includes protection of freedom from religion, too.

Spc. Jeremy Hall, a real, live atheist in a foxhole as an Iraq vet, is suing the Army over that very proposition.

Hall came out of the secularist closet last year, after being involved in a firefight as a gunner on a Humvee that took several bullets in its protective shield. Afterward, his commander asked whether he believed in God, Hall said.

“I said, ‘No, but I believe in Plexiglas,’” Hall said.

The issue came to a head when, according to Hall, Maj. Freddy J. Welborn threatened to bring charges against him for trying to hold a meeting of atheists and other secularists.
Welborn claimed Hall dishonored the Constitution. I think Welborn had his finger pointing in the wrong direction.

Likewise, let’s not prejudge the FLDS. Remember, the Pilgrims came here for religious freedom. Remember also that if you try drawing First Amendment lines to exclude one belief, you’ve lost the right to object when somebody else wants to exclude yours.

For more about the atheism Henry loves, including a link to Carnival of the Godless, and for my Friday SCATblogging which Blue Girl knows about, see SocraticGadfly.