LITTLE ROCK — The state Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a lower court’s termination of the parental rights of five families who had refused to live independently of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministry, ruling that such an action did not violate the parents’ First Amendment right to religious freedom.
The ruling involves 16 children who were removed from the Alamo compound and later found to be dependent-neglected after authorities raided the compound in 2008.
The Supreme Court found that requiring the parents to move off church property and findemployment outside the ministry before regaining custody of their children was “neutral” and only “incidentally” affected the parents’ freedom to practice their religion.
“The target of the requirements was not any religious activity or exercise; instead, the goal was to provide a safe environment for her children apart from the TACM compound, which the court found was, and continued to be, an unsafe environment for the children of its members,” wrote Justice Jim Gunter for the unanimous court in the case of Myers v. Arkansas Department of Human Services.
The basis put forth in the Myers case opinion was citedas the basis in the other four rulings written by other justices.
The parents also claimed that the Miller County Circuit Court was wrong to admit into evidence taped conversations between Tony Alamo and some ministry members as evidence of Alamo’s continued control of the ministry after he had been sentenced to prison for 10 counts of taking underage girls across state lines for sex.
They also claimed that the circuit court erred in terminating their parental rights.
But the Supreme Court upheld the circuit court on all three points.
The status of children removed from the compound in Fouke, about 15 miles south of Texarkana, has been the subject of court cases since 2008. At least 36 children were placed into foster care after the raid, including others belonging to some of the same parents involved in Thursday’s rulings.
Julie Munsell, a spokes-man for the Department of Human Services, said the department no longer is separately tracking children from the ministry and does not have up-to-date numbers on how many are still in the foster-care system. The department was the opposing party in these cases.
The circuit court found in 2009 that children raised at the compound were dependent-neglected and in some cases abused by being beaten, pressured into underage marriages to adults, and inadequately educated.
Alamo has been convicted of taking five underage girls across state lines for sex. He was sentenced to 175 years in federal prison in 2009.
He hasn’t been charged with sexually abusing any of the children who are now in foster care.
While some of the parents who appealed to the Supreme Court complied with portions of case plans set up with the aim of reuniting them with their children - such as undergoing counseling and classes, as well as visitation - none moved out of the compound or sought new employment apart from the compound, according to the state.
As a result, in 2010, the parental rights of all five sets of parents were terminated.
The parents asked the high court to overturn a previous ruling, Thorne v. Arkansas Department of Human Services, in which the Court of Appeals found that the state’s interest in looking out for the safety of the children involved in that case outweighed infringements on religious freedom.
But the Supreme Court found that the case plans in the Alamo compound children’s cases did not constitute infringement on the parents’ constitutional rights.
John Wesley Hall, an attorney for the parents during the appeal, said the Supreme Court did not account for the change in circumstances as a result of Alamo being held in federal prison.
“How anybody could logically find that there was a potential for harm from Tony Alamo when he was in federal prison in 2009 was beyond me,” Hall said. “The facts completely changed.”
The court agreed with the circuit court that Alamo still controlled his ministry and members were still dependent on him, because of testimony of some of the parents, as well as recorded phone conversations in which Alamo discusses day-to-day operations of the ministry, down to the level of what members should be eating.
Responding to Myers’ claim that her children were unfairly “lumped in” with others and were not in danger of abuse, Gunter wrote that “as the court of appeals has recognized, the court need not wait until a child has been abused or neglected to offer the protection of the state.”
In the other cases, judges agreed with circuit court rulings that the parents’ claims that their children would not be abused were “not credible.”
The parents whose parental-rights termination orders were upheld by the court were:
Bethany Myers, regarding two sons. Myers’ husband, Jim, is believed to be in hiding with the couple’s three daughters, according to the state’s case against Myers. Bethany Myerswas held in contempt of court and spent more than seven months in jail for refusing to say where her daughters are. Her refusal also violated the case plan established to reunite Myers with her children. The Myerses’ parental rights to their oldest son were not terminated. He was 16 at the time of the 2010 hearing, and the court suggested an alternative solution be formulated.
Carlos and Sophia Parrish, regarding four children.
Alphonzo Reid, regarding one daughter. Reid’s parental rights over two older minor children were not terminated. They were put in an independent-living arrangement supervised by the department.
Miriam and Albert Krantz, regarding six children.
Greg Seago, regarding two sons and a daughter. The parental rights of Seago’s wife, Gina Baskin, were also terminated, but she was not a party to the appeal.
At the Supreme Court, the cases are 10-694, 10-692, 10-691, 10-696, and 10-693; Miriam Krantz and Albert Krantz v. Arkansas Department of Human Services, Bethany Myers v. Arkansas Department of Human Services, Carlos Parrish and Sophia Parrish v. Arkansas Department of Human Services, Alphonzo Reid v. Arkansas Department of Human Services; Greg Seago v. Arkansas Department of Human Services.