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COURT: Texas Had No Right To Take Polygamists' Children

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Photos from a Web site launched by the sect show scenes during and after the raid of their ranch.

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The judges did not order that the children be returned to Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, but they directed the lower court to vacate its order granting custody of the children to the state.

In its ruling, the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals decided in favor of 38 women who had challenged the removals and appealed a decision last month by a district judge that the children remain in state custody.

"The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the department's witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger," the three-judge panel said.

More than 450 children were removed from their homes on the Yearning for Zion Ranch, which is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that practices polygamy.

An attorney representing the mothers said the trial court that originally backed the state's seizure of the children has 10 days to vacate its decision. If it doesn't, the appeals court will act, said Julie Balovich of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

Although the ruling applies only to 38 mothers and their children represented in this case, "we believe the reasoning in the court of appeals decision would apply to all children," Balovich said.

"It is a great day for families in the state of Texas," she said.

The appeals panel agreed.

"Evidence that children raised in this particular environment may someday have their physical health and safety threatened is not evidence that the danger is imminent enough to warrant invoking the extreme measure of immediate removal prior to full litigation of the issue," the panel wrote.Video Watch how the ruling favors FLDS »

Outside the courthouse, Balovich said it was "ridiculous" how the courts had ignored the parents' rights.

"It was about time a court stood up and said that what has been happening to these families is wrong," she said.

Flanked by the FLDS mothers represented in the case, Balovich said authorities considered the YFZ Ranch one household, an assertion with which the appeals court did not agree.

Therefore, proving that there was abuse in one household did not mean the state could apply that behavior to the entire ranch.

"This was the right decision," Balovich said, adding that she and her clients are "ecstatic about this news."

The authenticity of the initial abuse reports that turned authorities' attention on the ranch is in question, the court noted in its ruling.

Police have alleged that a family shelter crisis line received multiple calls March 29 and 30 from a caller claiming to be Sarah Jessop Barlow, age 16.

At least one of the telephones used by "Sarah Barlow" has been traced to a Colorado woman. Police say Rozita Swinton is a person of interest in connection with the reports of abuse at the ranch, but she has not been charged. She does, however, face a charge of providing a false report to authorities in a Colorado case.

Court hearings in the FLDS case resumed Monday, with hearings in several courtrooms to accommodate lawyers for the children. The hearings were held so the parties could review "family service plans" dictating the parameters under which FLDS parents can regain custody of their children.

FLDS members have denied any physical or sexual abuse takes place, and maintain they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

The sect's leader, Warren Jeffs, is in a Utah prison after a conviction on charges of being an accomplice to rape in connection with a marriage he performed in 2001. Jeffs also faces trial in Arizona on eight charges including sexual conduct with a minor, incest and conspiracy.