Four years ago today, Texas police and child protection authorities began a raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas. The raid, which became highly public, was prompted by an anonymous phone call alleging child sexual abuse that later was proved to be a hoax. Yet, subsequent to the call, 439 children were abruptly removed from the custody of their parents by a heavily armed large force of law enforcement officials, and kept in custody for months.
According to James Richardson, professor of sociology and judicial studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, this raid on the community of 800 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints is just one example of a trend of government authorities here and in other countries targeting fringe religious movements. Richardson and Stuart A. Wright, sociology professor at Lamar University, explore this high-profile case in a recently released collection of essays on the event, Saints under Siege: The Texas State Raid on the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (New York University Press, 2011).
"The whole raid was provoked by a bogus phone call from a woman in Colorado, who claimed she was there and being physically and sexually abused," Richardson said. "She wasn't there, she wasn't a member of the group, and she had a history of doing this sort of thing."
Richardson said that minority religious groups are very vulnerable to claims of child sexual abuse because "authorities may be apt to swing into action without checking out the claim when such claims are made."
Richardson said that his research on such groups and other targeted outliers of society has sometimes made him the target of accusations, and even lawsuits, by those who oppose the minority religious groups.
"I and a few other scholars doing research on fringe religious groups have been sued for $30 million twice," he said, "and that's not fun. Both cases ended up being dismissed, but only after considerable effort and expense."
Richardson explained that in the case of the Yearning for Zion Ranch, Texas authorities had been targeting the group for years.
"The audacity, size, pre-planning and obvious disregard of the law is the reason we decided to do Saints under Siege," he said. "It is unbelievable, really. Look, no one believes that having sex with children is okay or sanctions it - there are laws against that. That wasn't the issue here. They just came in and took them all, causing over 400 children and their families a great deal of distress and trauma."
Richardson said that authorities attempted to define everyone in the community as one family, in order to allow them to take all the children from their parents. (This can be done if in a family a member is accused of child abuse.) Yet, he said that those at the Zion Ranch were, in fact, many individual families who simply shared religious beliefs and chose to live in one community, but as separate families in separate homes.
In Saints under Siege, Richardson and Wright explore the events leading up to the raid, the raid itself, and the aftermath, offering comparative analyses to other government raids, historically and across cultures. Richardson's daughter, Tamatha L. Schreinert, co-wrote two of the 10 essays in the book with Richardson.
"She was a children's attorney for many years and is now a magistrate in the Washoe family court handling of domestic violence cases," Richardson said. "Her experience and background added a great deal of legal and political perspective."
Richardson has been at the University of Nevada, Reno for 43 years and is also the director of the Grant Sawyer Center for Justice Studies on campus. Saints under Siege is Richardson's tenth book, most of which focus on some aspect of minority religious groups.