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Presumption of evil

Texas' top prosecutors and child services directors should have read their Arthur Miller before tearing hundreds of children from their mothers who belonged to a polygamist sect. In "The Crucible," the playwright's allegorical take on McCarthyism, a hysterical teen in Salem, Mass., sparks the infamous witch hunt as the adults around her give deadly vent to their own fears. With the sanctimonious certitude of Miller's Judge Danforth, Texas officials assumed mass evil among the residents of the Yearning for Zion ranch and acted accordingly. Fortunately, the parents got a more impartial appellate court panel, which ruled Thursday that the state had overstepped its authority.

As in the play, a single accusation — purportedly by a teenage girl named Sarah who in calls to a crisis line said she had been abused and forced to marry — led officials to separate more than 450 children from their families with no evidence that they had been mistreated. Children who had grown up in a societal cocoon, without television, junk food or baggy jeans, were scattered among foster homes, some hundreds of miles from their parents.

After a while, the search for Sarah seemed more an excuse than a reason. Investigators never found her, and eventually the arrest warrant against her alleged abuser was withdrawn. But look, investigators said, they were finding underage mothers, evidence in their eyes of molestation and forced marriage. The child of one new mother was taken from her after birth. Within days, though, it turned out the mother was an adult — as were at least 14 others of the 31 who had been labeled minors.

Many of us find these people odd, their customs baffling. But the eagerness to brand the sect as abusers and molesters rang more of religious bias than of concern for the children. The breathless announcements about pregnant minors seemed naive at best when American cities are filled with teen mothers. It's not something to celebrate, but neither do we take their children away without cause or regularly charge their sexual partners with crimes.

Yearning for Zion members are followers of Warren Jeffs, who was convicted last year in Utah of being an accomplice to rape after he forced a 14-year-old girl to marry. There was, and is, reason for concern, especially in the cases of a few teenage girls who might have been married illegally. But Texas authorities painted the whole sect with the same brush, arguing in court that the entire ranch should be considered a single household. The appeals court judges who ruled unanimously in the parents' favor saw through that fallacy. The state has 10 days to appeal, but it would be better off conceding that, like the self-righteous accusers in Miller's Salem, it was overzealous in its efforts to root out presumed evils.