Judge Barbara Walther did rule that the women and children currently staying at the San Angelo Coliseum could meet twice a day to pray without being monitored by state workers.
Instead, she asked Texas Child Protective Services to find a member of the mainstream Mormon Church to oversee the sessions or some other "appropriate religious person" who would not be seen as "making their service less sacred."
Walther's suggestion comes just four days after an apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appealed to media to make a "clear distinction" between the two groups and reiterated that they have no connection.
The LDS Church strenuously disavows polygamous groups such as the FLDS, with whom they share historical roots and a scriptural canon.
The church denounced polygamy as a practice in 1890 and 1904 and excommunicates members who support or practice it. Fundamentalist Mormons consider the LDS Church to be out of order for abandoning principles laid out by Joseph Smith, founder of the faith.
A spokesman for the LDS Church had no comment on Walther's suggestion Monday night. But John Walsh, who has studied both the LDS Church and fundamentalist groups, said it was "problematic."
"To me it shows that the judge does not have a nuanced understanding of Mormon culture and of the very different churches that are part of the Mormon umbrella," said Walsh, who testified before Walther last week about FLDS practices. "She is in essence saying that we want one branch of the schism to supervise the other branch, which in any other religion would be problematic."
Walther made the rulings during a request for temporary restraining orders filed by attorneys for four nursing mothers but on behalf of other mothers as well.
Texas authorities took custody of children from the YFZ Ranch, located in Eldorado and owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints church, as part of an investigation that began April 3. Walther ruled Friday the state proved the children were in danger of sexual and emotional abuse and should remain in state custody.
On Monday, CPS said an updated headcount shows it has charge of 437 children. Of those, 77 are age 2 or younger. The state initially allowed mothers to join their children at the shelters, but sent home women of children older than 5. Currently, 95 women remain with younger children.
The state plans to separate adult mothers from their children later this week, after it finishes collecting DNA samples that will be used to determine parentage.
Attorneys for the women asked the judge to consider letting nursing mothers remain with their children after negotiations with CPS on the issue stalled. They asked the judge to let the mothers stay until DNA results are in, likely to take up to 40 days.
Walther acknowledged the nutritional and bonding benefits of breast-feeding.
"But every day in this country, we have mothers who go back to work after six weeks of maternity leave," she said.
"The court has made a determination that the environment those children were in was not safe," said Walther, adding that there is a shortage of suitable placements for infants in Texas.
The judge said she would leave it up to CPS officials and the attorneys to work something out on the breast-feeding. The attorneys, however, said so far they've been unable to come to agreement.
Shari Pulliam, a spokeswoman for CPS, said the agency plans to proceed with plans to send the women home.
"We don't place adult women in foster care," she said. "Our main thing is to protect children from abuse and neglect."
On Friday, child psychiatrist Bruce Perry backed the state's concerns about the group's practices but said the youngest children are in the least danger of being harmed by any "unhealthy" beliefs held by their parents. He also said that "the younger you are, the more destructive it is to be removed from your home environment."
The judge's decision drew a rapid response from breast-feeding proponents, who began rallying around the FLDS mothers. Nicole D. Hoff, a certified lactation counselor in Texas, set up an instant Web site - http://fldsbreastmilk.blogspot.com" Target="_BLANK">http://fldsbreastmilk.blogspot.com.
"While we may not agree or understand the circumstances, I think we need to fight for the right of the children to have the best care and nutrition, which includes breastmilk," she said in a message on the site.
Walther also ruled that the women and children would be allowed to use telephone lines set up at the coliseum Monday but only to visit with attorneys. She limited the children to half hour conversations and the women to one hour visits with counsel.
On the prayer issue, the mothers said that CPS workers listened in and even once vacuumed while they prayed. Andrea Sloan, an attorney for the women, said CPS did not want two or more women meeting together, which hampered their ability to gather for prayer services.
Gary Banks, a CPS attorney, said the concern was the women might discuss the ongoing investigation if allowed to meet behind closed doors.
The monitors will prevent that, the judge said. "But if [any mothers] cross the line, coach any child or make any reference to ongoing litigation, then all bets are off."
-Tribune reporter Christopher Smart contributed to this story.