Rutherfordton -- Sarah and Rachael Almanie got what they wanted Thursday, the freedom to return to the Word of Faith Fellowship.
The two girls, ages 17 and 16, were emancipated after a Rutherford County District Court hearing and are now considered adults in the eyes of the legal system.
It was clear that they intended to return to the WOFF immediately as they exchanged hugs and tears with church members including co-founder Jane Whaley and the couple they call mom and dad, WOFF ministers Kent and Brooke Covington.
The girls, the daughters of former WOFF member Shana Muse, were removed from the Covington's home and placed in the custody of the Rutherford County Department of Social Services after an October 2003 court ruling that found the WOFF environment abusive.
Both girls testified to the emotional and financial support provided by the Covingtons.
"We're just excited that we can finally choose our religion and be at home with our family," said Sarah Almanie.
Previous court rulings, including the one in October 2003, were not considered in the decision as Judge Robert Cilley was obligated by the law to only consider a list of factors required to be set forth for emancipation.
Cilley said he also could not consider the specific religious practices of the WOFF in making his ruling.
Muse said she knew this result was likely, but said she is saddened by the whole ordeal.
"To me, they (the WOFF) are the losers in this," said Muse. "That they would have to stoop to these levels to buy children. They have to live with that on their conscience."
The criteria for the emancipation revolve around proving whether or not the children in question have the level of maturity and financial independence to survive on their own.
The girls testified that they share a Mitsubishi car which was given to them by the Covingtons. Both of the girls have hourly-rate jobs, Sarah in a podiatrist's office and Rachael in a dental office.
The podiatrist is a WOFF member.
They recently signed a lease for an apartment to share.
Reid Brown, attorney for Muse who she hired this week, questioned whether or not the apartment is owned by WOFF member Ray Farmer and whether or not the lease was for only a month or two.
Rachael testified that the lease began in August and may be only one month long. The girls have lived in a foster home for the past nine months and could not live independently in the apartment until they were released from DSS custody.
Sarah, who will be 18 in January, said she has received a $30,000 scholarship to attend Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., and plans to commute to school starting in two weeks.
She had already taken several college courses.
Rachael had completed her high school work through the adult education program at Isothermal Community College, but said she was not eligible to receive a diploma for that work until she is 18. She turns 17 in January.
Both girls said their biggest fear was being forced to reunite with their mother and the possibility of being taken back to live in Florida.
Two social workers from DSS testified, highlighting the girls maturity and decorum.
Each said the girls were very mature for their respective ages.
Brown, in his closing remarks, said he fully agreed the girls were mature enough to make their own decisions, but questioned the reality of sending them back to the WOFF which only 10 months ago was deemed abusive enough to remove the girls.
"There was a situation that existed in October that was not in their best interest and I don't see that anything has changed," he said.
Brown argued that the girls were doing great in foster care and saw no reason to change that situation. The girls had been staying in the home of John and Pat Snyder, and Pat testified Thursday.
"They have been model young people," said a sometimes emotional Snyder. "I told the girls last night that they will always have a home with us as long as I was breathing."
The arrangements for the Snyder's to be the foster parents were first made by another WOFF attorney, Tom Hix.
Pat Snyder said she didn't know much about the girls except for what she read in the newspaper and heard in rumors.
She said they had many open and frank discussions about the girls' future and what goes on in the WOFF.
Hix made an impassioned closing statement that alluded to the numerous hoops the girls had to go through just to get approval to work, send letters to family members in the WOFF and get a driver's license because of the October court order.
"This is America," said Hix alluding the freedoms that come with citizenship. "Judge, as American citizens, emancipate these girls."
The girls primary attorney was Phillip Roth of Asheville. Roth reminded the judge that he could only consider the narrow statute regarding emancipation and could not consider their religious desires.
"No one is going to control these girls' destiny," said Roth.
Early, Brown questioned whether or not Roth was being paid by the Covingtons, but Cilley sustained an objection to that question.
DSS was represented by attorney Brad Greenway.
Cilley said in announcing his ruling that any religion, or any belief, could be open to questions.
"The main objection appears to be that they would make the wrong choice as to what church to attend," said Cilley. "The church has had criticism about its practices. In isolation, that criticism raises questions. But those questions could be raised with nearly any denomination that exists in this country."
Cilley proceed to check off a half-dozen examples of differing religious beliefs.
Muse said afterward that she felt the church was abusing the judicial system and this case was another in a long line of cases where the church has divided families.
"I will always believe that the Word of Faith Fellowship is one of the most destructive cults in America," said Muse. "My family is only one on Jane Whaley's long list of broken or destroyed families. She is not unlike Jim Jones at all, who also made a mockery of the judicial system in San Francisco in the 70's."
Muse took some solace in the fact the girls were told they were free to leave the WOFF at anytime.
Muse's two boys, ages 8 and 10, remain in DSS custody in a foster home.