A federal judge in Utah has handed control of a $114 million communal land trust back to the leaders of Warren Jeffs' polygamous church.
In an interim preliminary injunction order signed Thursday, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson said church leaders, not the state of Utah, should manage the more than $110 million in assets held by the United Effort Plan Trust.
The trust holds most of the property and homes in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., two nearby communities dominated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
There is also property in Bountiful, British Columbia.
Utah state courts seized control of the trust in 2005 after state attorneys said Jeffs and other church leaders had used it for their own benefit and left property holdings vulnerable to liquidation through default judgments in civil lawsuits.
The next year, a state judge allowed the trust to be stripped of its religious tenets and opened its class of beneficiaries to former church members. Some 6,000 of the church's 10,000 members then sued in federal court.
In February, Benson ruled that Utah's actions amounted to a government takeover that violated the religious rights of the church.
An appeal of the ruling was filed earlier this month with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver by the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona, Bruce Wisan, the court-appointed accountant who currently manages the trust, and others who believe the federal court may not have the right to overturn the decisions made by a state judge.
The order issued Thursday is not permanent but will likely be in place until all appeals are settled, said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the church.
Benson's order suspends Wisan's role as trust manager and returns control of the church assets to Lyle Jeffs, the faith's bishop and brother of Warren Jeffs.
The church believes communal living is a religious principle and formed the trust in the 1940s so faithful church members could share their collective assets. Church leaders have historically administered the trust and doled out its assets based on the "just wants and needs" of members.
Wisan's attorney, Jeff Shields, said Friday he had read the order and deciding what to do.
Wisan is "not going to do anything rash and he's not going to violate any court orders," Shields said. "It's a little bit of a dilemma. We were appointed by the state court, but are being released by the federal court. I don't know what we do."
Benson's order also blocks the sale of any church assets without the permission of the federal court and prohibits completion of a plan to subdivide church properties on the Utah-Arizona border. The order also blocks any pending litigation in a state court battle over the trust property from moving forward and sets other rules.
Benson's order also requires that any cash coming to the trust be first used to pay property taxes in Utah and Arizona.
It doesn't allow church leaders to evict non-members or former members living in trust-owned homes or automatically void any contractual agreements put in place by state managers.
"No person or entity is to directly or indirectly interfere with, intimidate, harass or coerce any other person or entity in connection with the use or occupancy of trust property," the order states in a reference that likely stems from a string of community disputes over the right to occupy homes.
Those limits were points negotiated with the Utah attorney general's office, Parker said.
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