The House of Yahweh compound is located between Clyde and Eula in Callahan County. Its leader, Yisrayl Hawkins, was booked into the Taylor County Jail on Tuesday night on four counts of bigamy.
Up to 40 House of Yahweh children allegedly spent their days working in the religious sect's fields, canning operation, cafeteria and butter-making process, according to a new charge filed against Yisrayl Bill Hawkins, the group's leader.
The county attorney for Callahan County, Shane Deel, filed a complaint Thursday that adds a Class B child labor misdemeanor charge to the four second-degree felony charges of which Hawkins is already accused. A Class B misdemeanor is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.
Hawkins was arrested Tuesday on charges of promoting bigamy, which is having more than one spouse at the same time. More charges could be brought against him, Deel said.
Although Deel said the charges were serious, John Young, one of the lawyers on Hawkins' legal team, said that any fundraising activity a church lets its youth group perform could be considered questionable.
"We vehemently deny that any child labor laws were violated," Young said. "As with any religious organization or church organization, whether it's Church of Christ, Baptist or a Catholic parish, there are times when children within the church may be working, so they can go to church camp or other things."
Young and lawyer Quanah Parker have asked a judge for a probable cause hearing to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to hold atrial, a procedural safeguard to keep people from being held in prison unfairly.
Hawkins' lawyers also have filed a writ of habeas corpus, which requests a person be brought before the court and that authorities justify his detention. A hearing has been set for Wednesday.
According to documents from Deel's office, Hawkins allegedly employed a child under the age of 14 with the initials "L.H." The child was one of up to 40 children whom law enforcement officers said they observed working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. Deel said the children were under the minimum employment age in Texas and, by law, should have been attending school during those times. Students who are considered to be home-schooled, however, are exempt from compulsory attendance, and home schools have been determined by the Texas courts to be private schools.
Deel said he had not specifically asked anyone from the group if the children were being home-schooled.
"I'm sure that's what some of them would claim," he said. "I would think it would be hard to be schooled while you're working all day."
Law enforcement officials said the alleged child labor had been going on since October but had dropped off after Yedidiyah Hawkins, 40, was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting his 14-year-old stepdaughter on Oct. 18.
Additional charges, as well as arrests for other House of Yahweh members, could be made, Deel said.
Several other members of the religious group are accused of practicing bigamy in Hawkins' arrest affidavits, including Kepha Arcemont Hawkins, Karena Arcemont Hawkins, Shandra Arcemont Hawkins, Yedidiyah Hawkins , Autumn Thornton and Riyanah Hawkins. Deel declined to comment on any arrests or bigamy charges for the six.
"At this point, I cannot comment on if anything is going to come of it. None have been arrested," Deel said. "It's possible that they could be in the future."
Whether a warrant is out for someone's arrest is not public knowledge until it has been carried out.
Although Hawkins is accused of promoting, assisting, encouraging or aiding other sect members to commit bigamy, he is facing the same charge a bigamist would because of the way Texas law is written. Under Texas law, if someone aids others to commit crime, they are just as guilty of the crime, said Deel.
"If you're the getaway driver waiting outside while someone goes in to rob a bank, you're just as guilty of robbing the bank itself," he said. The fact that Hawkins is charged with aiding bigamy doesn't mean he has not practiced it himself, he added.
"That doesn't mean he's not believed to have multiple wives himself," Deel said. "He may just be a little smarter about covering it up."
The accusation is a rare one and is likely to be the first since the Texas Legislature strengthened it in 2005, said Shannon Edmonds, a staff attorney for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.
"This is the first case I've heard about in which a polygamist has been charged with bigamy in Texas since then," Edmonds said. "This will be a test of some of the changes made in 2005."
Edmonds said he did an informal survey of other prosecutors while the Legislature was amending the laws in 2005 and recalled that most bigamy cases involve scam artists who will marry multiple wives or husbands. At the time, the Legislature was addressing concerns about a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints group in Eldorado. The law was amended to address cases in which a person may only be married to one person on paper but appears to live with other spouses who are not registered as their partners, he said.
The amended law may cause some headaches later, said Young. Previously, bigamy was only a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of one year in prison and a $4,000 fine, he said.
Young and Deel have disagreed about the interpretation of the statute.
"But we both agreed it was a very awkwardly written statute," he said. "Its very oddly drawn, and it's awkward to try to interpret it."