LITTLE ROCK — An attorney for the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries on Wednesday acknowledged that the church’s lawsuit against the Arkansas Department of Human Services has legal shortcomings but maintained that a judge dismissed the case for the wrong reason.
Arguing before a panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, attorney John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock asked the judges to reinstate the suit, which he said could then be amended to correct deficiencies and reflect changes in circumstances since the lawsuit was filed in April 2009.
“Maybe we could come up with something to be able to at least attempt to get that case viable in the district court again,” Hall said.
The lawsuit by the church and two of its members accused the Human Services Department of conducting a campaign of “harassment” against the church that included removing 36 children from their homes in the ministry in 2008.
The Human Services Department said the children were endangered by practices that included allowing underage girls to marry and punishing misbehavior with beatings.
Tony Alamo, the ministry’s leader, was convicted in federal court in 2009 of taking underage girls across state lines for sex and was sentenced to 175 years in prison. His conviction and sentence were upheld by the federal appeals court in December.
In his order dismissing the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Harry Barnes said the two ministry members were barred from pursuing their claims by a precedent set in a 1971 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In that case, the Supreme Court said the federal courts should not interfere with ongoing state court proceedings except in unusual circumstances, such as when state authorities have acted in “bad faith.”
Barnes found that the Human Services Department did not act in bad faith, which he cited as the reason for dismissing the church members’ claims. The two members, Bert Krantz and Greg Seago, did not appeal Barnes’ order.
Barnes dismissed the claims of the church for a different reason, finding that the church did not have standing to sue because it did not suffer an injury to a “legally protected interest.”
On Wednesday, members of the appeals court panel took issue with Barnes’ reasoning on that point, saying the loss of membership and drop in donations cited by the church appeared to be sufficient grounds for the lawsuit.
Even Hall, however, conceded that the appeals court would be justified in sustaining the dismissal for the same reason Barnes dismissed the parents’ claims - on the grounds that the lawsuit would interfere with state court proceedings.
“Yeah, you can,” Hall, who was not involved in the case at the trial level, told the judges. “I wish you wouldn’t.”
If the lawsuit were reinstated, Hall said, it could be amended so that it wouldn’t interfere with the state proceedings.
Human Services Department attorney Richard Rosen said the church’s claims were “inextricably intertwined” with those of the parents, who had an opportunity to make their arguments in the state court proceedings. The Arkansas Court of Appeals upheld the removal of the children and found that the parents’ religious freedoms were not violated. State court appeals by several church members regarding the termination of their parental rights are pending.
The panel of judges consisted of James B. Loken of Minneapolis, Steven M. Colloton of Des Moines, Iowa, and Susan Richard Nelson of St. Paul, Minn. The judges took the case under advisement and said they would rule at an unspecified later date.
Arkansas, Pages 11 on 03/17/2011