1/11/12 – Appeals court upholds dismissal of Alamo Ministries civil suit

Arkansas News
January 11, 2012
By John Lyons
Arkansas News Bureau

Appeals court upholds dismissal of Alamo Ministries civil suit

A federal appeals court on today upheld a judge’s order dismissing a lawsuit filed by Tony Alamo Christian Ministries over the removal of children from its compound in 2008.

The 8th U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis said U.S. District Judge Harry Barnes was right to dismiss the suit, which alleged violations of the ministry’s constitutional rights, because the suit would have interfered with state proceedings that at the time were still ongoing.

At least 36 children were removed from the ministry’s compound in Fouke and placed in foster care. Officials with the state Department of Human Services said the children were the victims of physical and sexual abuse, including forced marriages between underage children and adults.

Alamo was sentenced in November 2009 to 175 years in prison on charges that included taking minors across state lines for sex.

The ministry and two church members, Albert Ralph Krantz and Gregory Scott Seago, filed a lawsuit alleging that DHS officials violated their constitutional rights, including their First Amendment right to freedom of religious expression and their Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

Barnes dismissed the suit in February 2010. The ministry, but not the individual plaintiffs, filed an appeal, and on Wednesday a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit said it agreed with Barnes’ ruling.

The appeals court said the U.S. Supreme Court has established, in its 1971 ruling in Younger v. Harris, that federal courts must abstain from considering any civil claims brought by plaintiffs who are being prosecuted at the state level for matters related to their claims.

Barnes had cited Younger v. Harris only in regard to the individual plaintiffs and had dismissed the ministry’s claims because he said the ministry lacked standing. The ministry argued on appeal that it did have standing, but the 8th Circuit said Wednesday that the abstention rule set forth in Younger v. Harris was equally applicable to the ministry, so the issue of standing was irrelevant.

“Abstention applies to TACM because it alleges standing based on injuries that are either directly or indirectly derivative of those of the individual plaintiffs,” Judge Susan Nelson, a U.S. district judge from Minnesota specially appointed to hear the case along with two 8th Circuit judges, wrote in the opinion.

The appeals court also said the constitutional arguments in the federal lawsuit have been raised by members of the ministry in state court proceedings, including by Krantz and Seago, and state courts have rejected those arguments.

In April 2011, the state Supreme Court affirmed several circuit court decisions terminating various church members’ parental rights, including those of Krantz and Seago.

The appeals court acknowledged today that the state proceedings apparently were concluded at that point, but it said they were still ongoing when Barnes dismissed the federal lawsuit in 2010, so the judge ruled appropriately.

The appeals court also rejected the ministry’s argument that the state seized the children as an act of harassment and intimidation. Given that the state Supreme Court upheld the children’s removal and the termination of church members’ parental rights, the argument was not plausible, the 8th Circuit said.

Joining Nelson in the opinion were 8th Circuit Judges James Loken and Steven Colloton.

John Wesley Hall, attorney for the ministry, did not immediately return a call seeking comment today.

In: 2012

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