Supporters of Brian and Ruth Christine describe the couple as loving and religious and say they only abducted their children from state custody because they had run out of legal options.

But others say the Christines refused to cooperate with authorities or work to improve their parenting skills, so State Services to Children and Families was forced to take the children away.

Brian Christine, gun in hand, took his three daughters — ages 3,4 and 6 — Wednesday from a rest stop where a caseworker had briefly stopped after an arranged visit with the children and their parents. The Christines, apparently aided by a friend, escaped with the children and have not been seen since.

The case has divided the residents of Grants Pass, where townspeople have been airing their views in shops and beauty parlors.

It has also become a sore spot for people on both sides of the debate over whether the state has the right to terminate parents' rights to their children.

The dispute began a year ago when authorities, acting on a tip, removed the girls from the converted bus in Grants Pass where the Christines had been living for several months.

Since then, the children have been in foster care and the parents have fought with authorities. The Christines refused a court-appointed attorney, objected to undergoing psychological tests and claimed the state's actions were based on their transient lifestyle.

The Christines had been living on the road for about a year before the children were removed.

The Christines' friends say the state never intended to give the children back to their parents.

"I was appalled at the decision and the way these people were treated," said Barbara Sieradzki, a Grants Pass resident and part of a group that regularly protests what they consider government violations of citizens' rights. The Christines joined the group after their children were taken into custody.

Sieradzki and others who knew the Christines say they based their lifestyle on religious beliefs. The Christine's Web site outlines their opposition, on religious grounds, to the girls' vaccination and public schooling while in foster care.

But others point to evidence of abuse in the family and say the state had no choice but to remove the children.

Local resident Gordon Longhurst, who sits on the board of directors of Family Friends, a local charity for abused children, says he doesn't think the state would have pursued the case if there wasn't ample evidence to support the abuse charges.

As far as he can tell, the majority of the town's residents either don't have an opinion or support the state's actions, he said. But "we have a very vocal minority that is very suspicious of government and the authorities," he said. "The Christines have become a cause celebre for them."

Pat Wolke, the children's appointed attorney, said there was clear evidence that the children were abused, and that the Christines' lifestyle went far beyond conservative Christianity.

"The children were taken into custody because they were emaciated," Wolke said. "They were basically being slowly starved."

Ramona Foley, assistant director of state human services, said all cases where children are removed from families are evaluated in the courts, and parents have the chance to prove they can care for their families.

"We cannot just go out and randomly select children to be put into the system," Foley said.

Sieradzki said the Christines did not seem violent or unreasonable.

"These are young parents. They admit there are things they want to learn," Sieradzki said. "But it was obvious they weren't going to get the children back."

Wolke said the Christines showed no sign of wanting to become better parents.

"The parents seemed more interested in protesting than in getting their kids back," Wolke said. "They were more interested in coming into court and lecturing than admitting they did something wrong."