LITTLE ROCK Upholding a judge’s orders concerning children removed from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, the Arkansas Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that requiring the parents to establish financial independence from the ministry did not violate the First Amendment protection of religious freedom.
The rulings, which concerned 19 children from four families, was the first time that an appeals court has ruled on whether a judge’s orders requiring parents to move off church property and find jobs outside the ministry were constitutional. The appeals court had upheld the removal of other children but had not ruled on the religious freedom argument because, it said, the parents in those cases had not raised the issue on appeal.
Writing on behalf of a unanimous three-judge panel in the ruling regarding the children of church member Don Thorne, Judge Rita Gruber acknowledged that Thorne may have sincere religious beliefs but said a “parent’s right of conscience in religious matters ... sometimes collides with state laws of general application promulgated for the protection of children and citizens.”
“The record is full of testimony about beatings, sexual abuse, underage marriages, and other problems, all of which victimized children of families living on ministry property,” Gruber wrote.
In requiring Thorne to move off church property and find a job outside the ministry, Gruber wrote, Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin fashioned a “narrowly tailored solution” to protect the children.
Griffin concluded that “the state’s interest in preventing potential harm to these children outweighed Thorne’s conscientious choice to live on ministry property, work for the ministry and depend on the ministry for his family’s every need,” Gruber wrote. “We see no constitutional infirmity” in Griffin’s orders.
Judges Karen Baker and D.P. Marshall Jr. were also on the panel.
In an e-mail, Arkansas Department of Human Services spokesman Darinda Sharp said the rulings by Griffin and the appeals court “secured the safety of children who were in serious danger,” adding that the safety of children is the department’s “top priority.”
Attorney Clay Conrad of Houston, who handled the appeals for two sets of parents, accused the appeals court of lumping the cases of all the families together, rather than considering the evidence against each one. He also said the court didn’t consider whether the orders requiring parents to move off church property constituted the least restrictive option, a requirement that he said other courts have spelled out for cases involving First Amendment conflicts.
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“They just said there’s some legitimate state interest, and therefore they can do this,” Conrad said. “That’s not the law. They did not even examine whether there were ways for these people to continue their legitimate religious commitments while at the same time retaining custody of their children.”
Conrad said the parents would likely ask the appeals court for a rehearing and, if that fails, appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Since a September 2008 raid on the ministry’s compound in Fouke, about 15 miles south of Texarkana, at least 36 children have been removed from their homes in the ministry and placed in foster care. Tony Alamo, the group’s 75-year-old leader, was convicted last year of taking five underage girls across state lines for sex and was sentenced in November to 175 years in prison.
Judges in Miller County ruled in 2008 and 2009 that the parents could eventually be reunited with their children, but only if the parents moved off church property and found jobs outside the ministry. Some parents have complied with those orders, while others have refused, citing their religious beliefs.
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At a hearing in January, Griffin terminated the parental rights of four ministry families, including two sets of parents whose children were the subject of the appeals court ruling issued Wednesday, after the Human Services Department said the parents had failed to make progress in complying with his orders.
Wednesday’s ruling addressed only the removal of the children and the orders setting the conditions for the parents to be reunited with them. Conrad said the parents also plan to appeal the orders terminating their legal rights with respect to the children.
Alamo hasn’t been formally accused of sexually abusing any of the children who are now in foster care. But, writing for the appeals court panel, Gruber cited testimony at a hearing before Griffin last year that Alamo had ordered ministry children to be beaten and placed on fasts, had groped one underage girl and lived with several other girls and women whom he had taken as “wives.”
The appeals decided Wednesday were filed by church members Carlos and Sophia Parrish, Bethany Myers, Bert and Mirriam Krantz, and Thorne.
Thorne, Gruber wrote, is the father of Sophia Parrish, now in her 20s and allowed her to marry Carlos Parrish when she was 12 and he was 19. Other church members knew about the marriage, which was “widely celebrated” throughout the ministry, Gruber wrote.
Thorne also admitted his wife had asked another church member, John Kolbeck, to spank one of his children while he was away, Gruber wrote. Kolbeck, known as the ministry’s disciplinarian, is now a federal fugitive, wanted in the beating of a teenage church member in Fort Smith.
She noted that Thorne and Myers also spent seven months in jail after being held in contempt of court last year for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of some of their children, who were in hiding, and that Myers had once “dragged” another member’s child to be beaten by Kolbeck.
Sophia Parrish, Gruber wrote, had once “popped” her son in the mouth when he was 6.
“Striking a child six years of age or younger on the face or head, with or without physical injury, is abuse,” Gruber wrote, citing Arkansas Code 9-27-303.
Gruber also said church members testified that they considered Alamo a “prophet” and were aware of his teachings that girls are old enough to marry when they reach puberty. Although the children were taught at a ministry school, most of them dropped out before completing high school, Gruber wrote.
While not all of the children were alleged to have been abused, Gruber wrote, “the General Assembly’s expressed purpose in the juvenile code is to protect dependent-neglected children and make their health and safety its paramount concern; a child may be adjudicated dependent-neglected even if he or she has not yet suffered abuse.”
Conrad, the attorney for the Krantzes and Parrishes, criticized the appeals court for issuing only one detailed ruling, a 17-page opinion in the Thorne case, that addressed the arguments of all of the parents. For the other three cases, the court issued two-paragraph rulings rejecting the appeals “for the same reasons expressed in the Thorne appeal.”
“How can you say that they’re giving each family the due consideration that they’re entitled to when it’s obvious they just lumped them allin together?” Conrad asked. “That’s abusive.”
Bert Krantz echoed Conrad’s complaint, saying he was “disappointed” that the court didn’t give his family any “individual consideration.”
“My family is not the Thorne family,” Krantz said. “My family is not any other family.”
Sharp of the Human Services Department responded in an e-mail that the appeals court opinion “addressed all of the issues” raised by Conrad. She also noted that the court rejected an argument that the parents should have had separate hearings, and ruled that Griffin had “considered each case on its own.”