FLDS suit: Seizing trust violates religious freedom
Members of a polygamous sect contend a court-ordered reorganization of their property trust violated their constitutional rights and are suing to reverse the changes or regain control of the trust.
In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Monday, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints argue that changes to the United Effort Plan Trust since a court takeover in 2005 have secularized it, violating their religious freedoms. Defendants named in the suit are 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg, current trust manager Bruce R. Wisan, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard.
Lindberg appointed Wisan to oversee the trust in 2005 after ruling its FLDS trustees were improperly selling off assets and had failed to protect the trust from lawsuits.
The UEP Trust holds virtually all land and buildings in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., the traditional home of FLDS church. The sect also has land holdings in British Columbia. In 2005, the combined holdings were estimated to have a value of $110 million.
The UEP Trust was officially organized in 1942 by the fundamentalist Mormon group known at the time as The Work, now the FLDS Church. It was designed to protect property and, through a communal effort, support members with plural families.
As an expression of faith, members consecrated property to the trust to be shared with other church members based on their “just wants and needs,” as established by the faith and determined by religious leaders, the suit said.
But changes approved by Lindberg, the suit alleges, have put secular criteria in place, severing ties between the trust and “the religious life of the community” and discriminating against members of the FLDS faith as part of a “sociological and psychological war.”
“Utah, through its attorney general and the 3rd District Court, is interfering in obvious ways with the exercise of religion by the members of the FLDS church,” the lawsuit claims.
The filing also alleges that one of the reasons for reorganizing the trust – that the UEP supported bigamy – is invalid because Utah’s bigamy law targets “religious polygamists and is not enforced in a religiously neutral manner.”
The trust currently is entangled in about five lawsuits. They include a multi-million claim filed by Elissa Wall, the key witness in the state’s successful prosecution of sect leader Warren S. Jeffs; litigation over sale of the Harker Farm in Beryl, which Wisan seized from the sect to satisfy a judgment against the trust’s former managers; and a proposed sale of the Berry Knoll Farm at the Utah-Arizona stateline.
Wisan currently has no money to operate the trust or cover its expenses – at least $1 million is owed to his firm and his attorneys – prompting the land sales.
The $110 million UEP Trust holds the property and homes in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., the traditional home of the FLDS church. It includes additional property in British Columbia. The church has a sprawling ranch near the West Texas town of Eldorado.
The Utah courts seized [the] trust in 2005 after state attorneys said church leaders had used its funds for personal gain and had failed to defend it from lawsuits.
As overseer, Wisan has reformed the trust to strip church leaders of authority over its assets and pave the way for private homeownership.
The reforms also call for the trust to be managed based on neutral legal principles, not religious doctrine or practice.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of merit to it,” Wisan said. He said he anticipates the Utah attorney general’s office will take the lead in the defending the lawsuit’s allegations.
FLDS members consider communal living — a principle known as the Law of Consecration and the United Order — an integral part of their religion.