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SAN ANGELO, Texas - For a controversial polygamous sect, a nearly 10-year standoff with government authorities over marriage practices has come to this: a prophet in prison. Property seized. The prospect of a generation of children taken away.

The ramifications of a Texas judge's ruling that 416 children taken from the sect's YFZ Ranch would remain in temporary state custody have ignited a debate about the intertwining of religious liberty, parental rights and child protection.

But from the ranch, owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, there was silence.

There was silence Saturday, too, from FLDS leader Warren S. Jeffs, who led his people to this precipice.

Salt Lake attorney Walter Bugden, who represented Jeffs in a criminal case last fall, said the sect leader would not offer any comment on the Texas raid.

Jeffs is in jail in Arizona, awaiting trial on charges he conducted underage marriages. A Utah jury convicted him last fall on a rape charge for a 2001 marriage between a 19-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl, who objected to the union.

Some, if not all of Jeffs' minor children are among those now in protective custody in Texas.

On Friday, 51st District Judge Barbara Walther said authorities provided sufficient proof that children at the sect's ranch in Eldorado are in danger, accepting the state's argument that the sect encourages the sexual abuse of underage girls.

Angie Voss, who led the state's child abuse investigation, said religion was not at issue but still spoke of the sect's beliefs in her testimony.

"I believe it is not safe for any child to return to the ranch because the adults I have spoken with have told me they don't believe they are doing anything wrong and the belief in children having children is part of their culture," she said.

The FLDS were already under siege before the April 3 raid on the YFZ Ranch, the sect's most sacred site - named after a song Jeffs' penned called Yearning for Zion.

Utah authorities in 2005 took over the group's communal land trust, which holds virtually all property in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The twin towns are the sect's traditional home base, though government pressure has caused the group to fan out to other locales.

Both Utah and Arizona embarked on a series of prosecutions, using birth certificates of children to tie men to sexual conduct with underage girls.

But in Texas, state authorities went to the heart of the matter: The children.

Ed Firmage, an emeritus law professor at the University of Utah, said the removal of the sect's children may do what individual prosecutions and property confiscations did not do: stop underage marriages among the FLDS.

“This is their time,” he said. “This is the most brutal way of learning it.”

The armchair analysis of the Texas custody case began immediately after Walther issued her decision.

“The court has to err on the side of safety,” Harold Danford, a Kerrville attorney representing a 1-year-old boy, said Friday. “They had some evidence, not much.”

While none argue that abuse should go unchecked, some experts said Walther's sweeping ruling may have handed fundamentalist Mormons who believe in plural marriage a case capable of testing the ban on polygamy at the U.S. Supreme Court level.

“This is Loving v. Virginia meets Lawrence v. Texas meets Reynolds v. U.S.,” said Firmage. Those cases, all heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, set precedents for government regulation of adult relationships.

Loving dealt with interracial marriage, Lawrence with homosexual relationships and Reynolds banned polygamy. The last case, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1890, has never been directly challenged.

For that reason, attorneys general in Utah and Arizona have resisted prosecutions of consenting adults who have polygamous relationships.

But the Texas raid removed children whose parents said they were adults when they entered plural marriages, as well as monogamous parents who consider plural marriage a religious tenet.

Michael Quinn, a historian and Mormon scholar, said social hysteria and Protestant revulsion against polygamy provide the backdrop for the Texas raid.

“It is very clear this attack is on plural marriage as a way of living,” Quinn said. The children's removal was a “blanket punishment of an entire group for alleged crimes of an individual. That is clearly something that could be appealed up the court system.”

Texas is in uncharted legal territory, said Douglas Laycock, a University of Michigan law professor who is an expert in religious liberty.

If there is abuse, religion is not a defense, he said. But, “It is an astonishing decision if it was based on what parents teach their children and how it may affect them years later,” he said. “That is very problematic. I don't think the state can just draw inferences from religious beliefs.”

Firmage said the FLDS have the opportunity to make “heroic law, even though they are not all heroic and some of them are criminals.”

Most great laws, he said, come for the “strangers among us” - the criminals, the immigrants, the minorities.

But he also hopes that the removal of the sect's children may do what individual prosecutions and property confiscations did not do: draw concessions from the FLDS concerning underage marriages. A expert testified last week that underage marriages are not universal among the FLDS.

“This is their time,” he said. “This is the most brutal way of learning it.”

As for polygamy, it's a a religious imperative for the FLDS and they won't likely give up the practice.

“They'll continue on,” Quinn said. “The same thing happened 55 years ago [in the Short Creek, Arizona, raid]. In some cases, it took three years for the parents to be reunited with their children.”

And this event, like that one, he said, will only entrench their sense of persecution.

“It will only reinforce their view that Satan operates through government,” Quinn said.


* KRISTEN MOULTON contributed to this story.