7 Oct 2008

FLDS suit: Shake-up unconstitutional

Salt Lake Tribune - October 7, 2008

Polygamous sect claims that changes since an '05 court takeover have secularized it, violating religious freedom

by Brooke Adams

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 freedom. 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 unnamed FLDS members pursuing the lawsuit are represented by Salt Lake City attorneys Rod Parker and Richard A. Van Wagoner.
Until about two months ago, sect members had for the most part silently stood by as the court reformed the trust and Wisan moved to break up its holdings to turn them into private property. Parker said recent proposals, such as Wisan's plan to sell a farm that has been the community's "bread basket," have become more "acute" and moved members to assert their constitutional rights.
Wisan is acting on behalf of the state, he said, and "the state is trying to substitute itself for a religious leader."
Wisan has previously defended his management of the trust as being "approved by the judge" and in keeping with Arizona and Utah laws. On Monday, he said he had not yet seen the lawsuit.
"The courts have ruled that the trust is not just for the FLDS, and according to the FLDS it should be just for them," Wisan said, adding that he remains focused on getting property subdivided in the twin towns so it can be distributed.
The Utah Attorney General's Office did not respond to a request for comment.
The trust is entangled in about five lawsuits. They include a multimillion-dollar 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 state line.
Wisan 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.

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