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Posted: 1:04 PM- SAN ANGELO, Texas - The ACLU of Texas has joined the debate over the removal of 416 children from a polygamous sect's ranch more than two weeks ago.
A Utah man also has gathered 1,000 signatures through an online petition site from people who oppose the blanket removal of the children from the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado. That petition is on its way to Texas, said Connor Boyack, a political blogger. The petition is online at www.thepetitionsite.com/2/free-the-innocent-flds.
In a statement released Friday, the Texas ACLU said the situation has raised "serious and difficult issues regarding the sometimes competing rights of children and their parents." The organization made the statement after listening to some testimony but before the judge issued an order continuing state custody of the children.
Tom Green County District Court Judge Barbara Walther ruled late Friday that the state had proved all the children were in imminent danger of being abused or neglected by their parents, who are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
"While we acknowledge that Judge Walthers' task may be unprecedented in Texas judicial history, we question whether the current proceedings adequately protect the fundamental rights of the mothers and children of the FLDS," said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, in a statement.
While the ACLU "deplores" crimes against children, Burke said that "constitutional rights that all Americans rely upon and cherish - that we are secure in our homes, that we may worship as we please and hold our places of worship sacred, and that we may be with our children absent evidence of imminent danger - have been threatened" by the state's actions.
Lisa Graybill, legal director for the ACLU of Texas, said officials may have violated the U.S. Constitution and state laws in how they conducted the raid and the subsequent custody hearing.
"The government must ensure that each mother and each child in its custody receives due process of law in determining the placement of the children and other matters regarding the children's care," she said in the statement.
Connor Boyack of Lehi, who owns a Web design company and writes a political blog, said the petition drive he organized asks that the chiildren be released and officials apologize for the "acts of aggression" against the FLDS.
"I've been quite frustrated with the situation as it developed," said Boyack. "I felt like there was a lack of focus on the constitutional rights of the people."
He posted the petition online April 15 and within five days had reached his goal of 1,000 names. About 75 percent of those signing identified themselves by name and many posted comments opposing the action.
He is sending the petition to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Senator Hutchinson, Senator Cornyn, and Commissioner Cockerell of the Department of Family Services.
"I don't expect too much to come of it," he said.
He said Texas' child custody system has a documented history of problems, which may place the FLDS children at greater risk than their own community.
"We hope that somebody with authority will speak out in defense of their constitutional rights," Boyack said.