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Polygamist sect clarifies marriage policy

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SAN ANGELO, Texas (CNN) -- A polygamist sect under fire over allegations of underage marriage will now allow women to wed only when they are old enough to give consent under state law, a spokesman said Monday.

The legal age in Texas to marry without parental consent is 18.

"The church is clarifying its policy on marriage," said Willie Jessop, a spokesman for the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He told reporters the church would advise FLDS families "neither request nor consent" to the marriage of underage girls, though he stopped short of saying the church ever violated the law.

"In the FLDS church, all marriages are consensual. The church insists on appropriate consent," he said.

The change in policy comes after a Texas judge issued an order Monday allowing parents of hundreds of children seized from the sect to begin picking up their kids.

With one exception, Judge Barbara Walther told the Department of Family and Protective Services to allow parents to pick up the 440 children starting 10 a.m. Monday.

Thirteen children and six mothers had left the Austin Children's Shelter by 6 p.m., the shelter's executive director and CPS officials told CNN affiliate KXAN.

The exception involved a 16-year-old girl who the girl's attorney said was an "identified victim of sexual abuse."

The attorney said the child's release might cause her to come into contact with her alleged sexual abuser.

"The court has now signed an order applying to all children," the motion said. "But there are no restrictions or provisions which take into account the immediate risk of her alleged perpetrator having access."

The logistics of retrieving the remaining children may not be so simple, though, since some parents have children at different facilities across the state.

Under the judge's order, the Department of Family and Protective Services will still have the right to visit and interview the children.

These unannounced visits could entail medical, psychological and psychiatric examinations, and the parents must not intervene. Video Watch what the judge's order says »

Also under the order, the parents must attend and complete parenting classes. The families must remain in the state of Texas and notify the department within 48 hours of any trips more than 100 miles from their homes.

The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday let stand a lower court's ruling that the state had no right to remove the children in April from the Yearning for Zion ranch near Eldorado.

The ranch is run by the the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that practices polygamy.

The FLDS is not affiliated with the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

The state of Texas maintained it removed the children because interviews at the ranch uncovered a "pervasive pattern" of sexual abuse through forced marriages between underage girls and older men. The state alleged that young boys on the ranch were groomed to be perpetrators because of those beliefs.

FLDS members deny any sexual abuse occurred and say they are being persecuted because of their religion.

In May, the 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled that officials erred in removing the children from the ranch, effectively overturning Walther's ruling that the children remain in state custody.

The state Supreme Court agreed with the appellate decision last week. See a timeline of the FLDS case »

DFPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said her department supports Walther's order, which "allows for our investigation to continue."

"Our goal is always to try to reunite families," Meisner said. "We hope they can be safe there."

The children are being housed at seven facilities across the state, near Amarillo, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Abilene, Fort Worth and Corpus Christi.

"The kids have been terrorized and put in the custody of the state for weeks and weeks," FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said Friday after a hearing to determine how to return the children.

"Every effort has been made to bring relief," Jessop said. "It doesn't need to be a problem to go pick up the kids. It doesn't need to be any more difficult than picking them up after school."

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Also on Monday Attorney General Wally Opal called for a special prosecutor to look into allegations of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of girls in a polygamous sect in Bountiful, British Columbia.

It was not clear if Bountiful's community had any connections to the FLDS or any other polygamous group in the United States.

CNN's Tracy Sabo contributed to this report.

All About Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

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