SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge refused Tuesday to dismiss food stamp fraud charges filed against members of a polygamous group, rebuffing arguments that sharing benefits is a protected part of their religion.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart decided the case doesn't violate the religious freedoms of the secretive group accused of operating a multimillion-dollar scheme. Most of those accused in the case didn't receive benefits themselves, so they can't argue rules limiting their use is unfair, the judge wrote.
Stewart will, however, allow the defendants to argue at a Jan. 30 trial that they believe their eternal salvation depends on living communally.
Salt Lake City lawyer Jim Bradshaw, who represents one of 11 defendants in the case, said he's disappointed the case will go forward, but he is heartened that the religious-belief arguments can be heard by a jury.
Members of the polygamous group are accused of diverting food-stamp money to front companies and using it buy a truck and a tractor. Sect leaders lived lavishly while low-ranking followers suffered, federal prosecutors contend.
Defense attorneys argue that there's no law barring sharing of benefits, and restricting the group's religious expression could set a dangerous precedent.
Leader Seth Jeffs testified at an October hearing they believe everything on earth belongs to God, which is why members must donate everything they own to a community storehouse. The group's leaders decide how best to redistribute the goods. The "law of consecration" is based on early Mormon beliefs from the 1800s, he said.
His testimony offered a rare glimpse into the group that follows Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life prison sentence for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered wives. The group known for prairie dresses and updo hairstyles is based in a remote community on the Utah-Arizona border. Its members don't usually talk with outsiders at the behest of their leaders.
Seth Jeffs runs the group's South Dakota organization and is a brother of the imprisoned leader.
Known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the group believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven — a legacy of the early Mormon church. The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.
The highest-ranking leader ensnarled in the bust, Lyle Jeffs, has been a fugitive for more than three months since he slipped out of a GPS ankle monitor and escaped home confinement in the Salt Lake City area. The FBI has offered a $50,000 reward for finding him.
The 11 defendants have pleaded not guilty to food stamp fraud and money laundering.