Law in the News

Polygamist Case Presents an Unusually Volatile Mix of Legal Issues.

What are the most cherished individual rights held by Americans? For many, two rights which are considered particularly sacred are the right to the free exercise of religion and the right to raise their families in the way they believe to be the best. The law respects this viewpoint, providing great protection to both individual expression of religious beliefs and the rights of parents to teach, discipline and care for their children as they see fit.

Yet, as the recent seizure of 416 children from a polygamist compound outside of San Angelo, Texas has recently reminded us, these rights are not absolute. Problems occur when individual rights conflict with rights reserved by the government, in this case the right to protect the welfare of our children. It is often at the intersection of individual and states rights where the flashpoint occurs for the legal and political issues that create the most passion and debate. One example is abortion, which lies at the crossroads of a woman’s rights over her own body and, again, the state’s interest in protecting children, in this case, the unborn. How do we determine when individual rights win out and when the state’s interest is sufficient to trump those rights? Is there another, external, standard to determine which is right in a given case? These are the issues that legislators, jurists, and, ultimately, all of us as voters, must decide.

In the case of these 416 children, I suspect most of us, including myself, will not hesitate to say that the state is justified in protecting these children, and that the individual rights at stake must give way. After all, the practice of polygamy is foreign and distasteful to most of us, and its easier to condemn those we can keep at arm’s length. Yet, the issues the case raises – freedom of religion, parental rights, and the limits on each – are not so easily disposed of. Take a moment today to consider for yourself where the line should be drawn to restrain our treasured individual freedoms.