Federal judge blocks sale of polygamous sect land

AP News
Posted: Feb 24, 2011 9:43 PM
Federal judge blocks sale of polygamous sect land

A federal judge on Thursday said the state of Utah violated the constitutional rights of Warren Jeffs' polygamous church when it seized the faith's communal land trust and carved away its religious principles.

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson's ruling makes permanent an injunction that blocks the state of Utah from selling off assets, land or property held in the United Effort Plan Trust.

The primary effect of the state's actions _ beginning in 2005 _ served to inhibit religion and was a move toward "disestablishing" the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Benson said.

"The resulting intrusion into the everyday life of the FLDS church and its members fostered not only 'excessive government entanglement with religion' but was a virtual takeover by the state," the judge wrote.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said his office disagrees with the 48-page ruling but needs some time to digest it.

"We're looking at an appeal," Shurtleff said.

Valued at roughly $114 million, the trust holds most of the property and homes in the FLDS-dominated communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., which straddle the states' border. There is also property in Bountiful, British Columbia.

The Utah state courts seized control of the United Effort Plan assets in 2005 after state attorneys said Jeffs and other church leaders had used trust assets for their own benefit and left property holdings vulnerable to liquidation through default judgments in civil lawsuits.

In 2006, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg approved changes that stripped religious requirements from the trust, allowing for former FLDS members to claim beneficiary rights.

The FLDS ignored the state's intervention until 2008 when Lindberg agreed to let the court-appointed trust manager, Bruce Wisan, sell off a church farm to pay trust debts.

Some 6,000 of the church's 10,000 members then sued in federal court, claiming state intervention violates their religious rights.

The sect 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 administered the trust and doled out its assets based on the "just wants and needs" of members.

In his ruling, Benson said the state overstepped its authority when it altered the trust.

"Virtually from its first step after it decided to reform the Trust, the state court was in forbidden territory," Benson said in the ruling. "It not only had no authority to determine the 'just wants and needs' of the members of the FLDS church, but it had no authority to interpret or reform the Trust at all."

A message left for Wisan's attorney, Jeffs Shields, was not immediately returned on Thursday.

Benson also said arguments that the trust was used by Jeffs and other church leaders to facilitate the illegal practice of polygamy or to force underage girls into marriage and sex might be appropriate, but that state law provides avenues for addressing those concerns separate from altering the trust.

"It is one thing for a state to tell a church and its members that they, just like all other residents of the state, may not smoke peyote, or commit child sexual abuse, or violate any other law ... But it is quite another thing, altogether, to reorganize the religious activities of such churches and their members to make the conform to the states' version of appropriate secular behavior," the judge wrote.

"This is a great day for religious freedom in this state," said Rod Parker, who represents the FLDS. "It won't be business as usual for the state's administration of the trust."

The full scope of the ruling isn't yet clear. A temporary injunction issued in December was narrowly focused on two issues _ the farm sale and a plan to subdivide Hildale and Colorado City. Benson is expected to issue a separate order detailing the scope of the injunction.

Shurtleff contends that the state court didn't do anything wrong and he fears the ruling will set the state's efforts back by five years.

"It wasn't unconstitutional," he said "The federal court did not have the authority to do what it did."