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Religious [Out]Laws: An Analysis of the 2008 Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints Raid


In early April 2008, based on a single allegation of child abuse, the state of Texas and Child Protective Services (CPS) executed a raid on the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints, a polygamous Mormon group living on the "Yearning for Zion" ranch in Eldorado, Texas. The raid involved the immediate removal of over 400 children who were then placed in protective custody in nearby San Angelo. Despite the fact that the initial abuse allegation was determined to be a hoax, the raid was the catalyst for a long and drawn-out legal battle over whether the FLDS were suitable parents. While CPS described this case as a series of clear-cut instances of child sexual abuse, I contend that much more lay below the surface. I argue that CPS's simple narrative of the FLDS as an unthinking and brainwashed monolithic cult missed the deep complexities of this case. Specifically, I submit that an analysis of the FLDS raid requires attention to the ways in which religion and sexuality function as dual sites of legal, constitutional, and political regulation. Considering topics such as the category of religion and religious freedom, the notion of public order, and the legal construction of the child and the family, I examine ways that the FLDS - representing both a religious and a sexual minority - face a peculiar set of difficulties when attempting to interface with the law. Drawing heavily on theories of secularism, religious freedom constitutional jurisprudence, classical liberal philosophy and its contemporary critics, as well as queer theory, I unpack and explore the nuances of the initial 14-day hearing to determine child custody as well as subsequent decisions from the Third Court of Appeals in Austin and the Texas Supreme Court. Formative of my theoretical interventions and jurisprudential analyses are the in-person interviews I conducted with ad-litem attorneys who served as legal guardians for FLDS minors after the raid. The ad-litem attorneys were responsible for articulating to the court the best interests of the FLDS minors. Because it provided insight into the relationship between the FLDS and the law, the ethnographic component of this dissertation is crucial to the formulation of many of my central claims about the FLDS as both religious and sexual minorities. Ultimately, I describe how, regardless of one's political position on whether the raid itself was justified, the law's tumultuous relationship with FLDS difference produced many undesirable outcomes. From the smooth reunion of FLDS parents with their children, to a comprehensive determination of whether actual sexual abuse had occurred in every household, the structure of the law presented a serious roadblock to the resolution of many of the raid's central conflicts.

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