5/05/09 – Judge orders some records sealed in Alamo case

May 5, 2009
The Associated Press

Judge orders some records sealed in Alamo case

Identities of children seized from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and details of closed-door custody hearings will be sealed from public view in a federal lawsuit brought by the jailed evangelist’s church, a judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes issued an order protecting children’s identities, details of state custody hearings and any federally protected health information about church followers. However, Barnes denied a request by the state to also seal any filings involving the children.

“An ordering sealing off the entire record from any individuals not associated with the litigation would be too broad,” Barnes wrote in the order filed Monday. “However, the court is mindful of the need to protect the identity of any juveniles that are associated with this case.”

Alamo’s ministry sued the state in April, alleging state child-welfare officials were persecuting the evangelist’s followers. The suit asks Barnes to issue a restraining order blocking the state from seizing children solely because their parents belong to the church. It also asks that Barnes stop the state from forcing parents to leave the church in order to regain custody of their children.

Lawyer Phillip E. Kuhn of Lakeland, Fla., who is representing Alamo’s church, opposed sealing records in the case. In a twist, Kuhn argued that reporters — the same people Alamo often claims are in league with the Antichrist — should have access to filings and hearings to ensure a fair trial.

Tuesday, Kuhn described Barnes’ order as “very good.” Though he anticipates legal fights with the state about what should be open, the lawyer said the order would ensure the public can see what’s happening.

“Hopefully it will still be a fairly open procedure,” Kuhn said.

The lawsuit names the director and other officials with the Arkansas Department of Human Services, the state agency that oversees child-welfare programs in the state. Agency spokeswoman Julie Munsell said the department was satisfied with Barnes’ order and didn’t intend to have the entire case sealed.

“We wanted to leave as much flexibility for public inspection while still guarding the privacy of the children in our care,” Munsell said.

The agency has a Friday deadline to respond to the lawsuit.

Since a Sept. 20 raid on Alamo’s compound in Fouke, state child-welfare officials have seized 36 children associated with the ministry. The state continues to seek nearly 100 more children over allegations of physical and sexual abuse at Alamo’s churches. State officials acknowledge Alamo followers likely are hiding the children to avoid a court order allowing them to be taken.

Alamo, 74, faces a 10-count federal indictment accusing him of taking young girls across state lines for sex. His trial is scheduled to begin May 18, with Barnes presiding over it.

In: 2009 - (Trial year)

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