Little Rock, Arkansas - The Tony Alamo Christian Ministries filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing Arkansas child welfare officials of persecuting the jailed evangelist's followers as he awaits trial on child sex charges.
The federal lawsuit seeks a restraining order to block the state from seizing children whose parents belong to the church. It also asks the state to stop forcing parents to leave the church in order to regain custody of their children.
Attorney Phillip E. Kuhn filed the suit against Department of Human Services Director John Selig and two other agency officials on behalf of the church and two Alamo followers. He accused state officials of conducting a "systematic, persistent and continuous campaign of harassment and intimidation" against the church over its religious views.
He also said state officials created a "deprogramming" plan to acclimate youngsters to a world outside the church, including letting them watch television and getting vaccinations their parents object to on religious grounds.
"Those parents whose children are in foster care are now faced with the awful choice and predicament of having to choose between their children and their God," Kuhn wrote in the suit. "To some, this choice means that their immortal souls are in grave danger."
The church also accuses state officials of placing seized children in homes as far away from their parents as possible and ordering no discussion about Alamo during visits.
DHS spokeswoman Julie Munsell said Thursday that officials tried to keep children in foster homes close to their parents.
She declined to address some of the allegations in the lawsuit, citing gag orders in the custody cases, but said the department viewed the Alamo ministry as a dangerous place for children given the physical and sexual abuse allegations.
The department "believed these children in the ministry were at risk of abuse and neglect," Munsell said, adding religion did not play a part in its decision.
Since a Sept. 20 raid on Alamo's ministry compound in Fouke, state officials have placed 36 children associated with the church in protective custody. Munsell previously said the children were seized amid allegations of beatings ordered by Alamo, as well as the charges of sexual abuse.
Alamo, 74, remains held without bond pending a May 18 trial on charges that he took young girls across state lines for sex. He continues to dictate devotional messages to his ministry's Web site, including a message Wednesday that counted judges, prosecutors and child welfare officials among "the antichrists" and "the godless."