Two women who gave their life savings to an apocalyptic religious group say they are victims of fraud because the church failed to make good on promises that the women get land and see Christ in return for their money.
Kaziah Hancock and Cindy Stewart took their case against Jim Harmston and The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of The Last Days (TLC) to the Utah Court of Appeals on Tuesday.
The women won an earlier district court lawsuit against the Manti-based church, but it was thrown out by a judge.
Stewart turned over her life savings to TLC. Hancock sold her farm and gave the church the proceeds.
In return, Harmston allegedly promised the women membership in the “Church of the Firstborn,” that they would see Christ face-to-face, and be given land.
An attorney for Harmston argued that the promises are rooted in church doctrine, not a business contract. Also, Utah law requires a written contract for agreements related to property, attorney Kevin Bond said.
Bond said the promises were not to be fulfilled by Harmston, but by God.
He said a ruling in the women’s’ favor would set a precedent for excommunicated church members of any faith to seek repayment of tithing.
Don Redd, an attorney representing the women, said Harmston and TLC should not be allowed to create a “religious cocoon” to protect themselves.
Hancock and Stewart first sued in 2002. A jury awarded them $300,000, but a judge said there were too many church members to fairly divide up damages.
Redd refiled the lawsuit, but a judge dismissed three of five claims, prompting the appeal and a separate district court suit.
TLC was founded in 1994 by Harmston after his excommunication from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
TLC, which preaches the practice of polygamy as one of its tenets, made news in 2002 after posting a declaration on its Web site that the end world was at hand and only its church members would survive.