Home » Judge rules state’s control of FLDS trust unconstitutional and an illegal ‘takeover’ by Utah

Judge rules state’s control of FLDS trust unconstitutional and an illegal ‘takeover’ by Utah

From: Deseret News

By Emiley Morgan

February 26, 2011

In a monumental ruling that could overturn five years of work done by a state-appointed team charged with managing the funds of a Utah-based polygamous sect, a federal judge ruled Thursday that the seizure of the sect’s assets was unconstitutional and a “virtual takeover.”

“Virtually from its first step after it decided to reform the Trust, the state court was in forbidden territory,” U.S. District Court Dee Benson wrote 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.”

Benson writes that the state’s involvement constituted becoming “entangled with religion” and amounted to efforts to “disestablish” the sect.

“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,” he states.

The United Effort Plan was created by the Fundamentalist LDS Church in 1942 on the concept of a “united order,” allowing followers to share in its assets. Members consider sharing its assets a religious principle and see state intervention in the trust as a violation of their religious rights.

Valued at more than $110 million, the trust holds most of the property and homes in the twin FLDS communities located in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The church also holds property in Bountiful, British Columbia, and Eldorado, Texas.

Utah’s state courts seized control of the trust in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by church leaders, including Warren Jeffs, the newly reinstated head of the church who is currently in jail in Texas pending trial on charges of bigamy, aggravated sexual assault and assault.

Members of the polygamous church have since been challenging the takeover in both state and federal courts, alleging it’s an inherent violation of their constitutional rights.

The primary point of contention is the proposed sale of Berry Knoll Farm, a 438-acre parcel of land that had been set aside as a building site for a temple.

In 2009, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg ruled that a liquidity crisis of the United Effort Plan trust made selling the farm necessary. The trust has around $3 million in debt and no steady source of revenue. The FLDS Church appealed the ruling to the Utah Supreme Court.

In August 2010, the state’s high court found that the pending state lawsuit, filed in 2008, came too late.

“The FLDS Association was not diligent in challenging the district court’s modification of the UEP trust,” the court wrote in a unanimous decision, “and that lack of diligence has resulted in prejudice to numerous parties.”

In 2008, Benson decided against an injunction so the matter could be argued in state court. The FLDS renewed its federal petition to block the sale in October after Lindberg ruled the sale should go forward.

Benson issued a temporary restraining order in federal court in December 2010, blocking the sale of various assets held by the trust while he mulled whether Utah authorities had violated the constitutional rights of the FLDS faithful.

Thursday’s ruling denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case and implemented an injunction against the sale of the land, effective immediately. Benson states in the ruling that the arguments offered up by the state to defend its actions are “so tepid as to be nearly nonexistent.”

“In extensive briefing in this case, the defendants cite no case that is even suggested to be remotely similar enough to the instant case to support their defense,” he wrote. “This is because there isn’t one. The defense amounts to nothing more than a repeat of why the state actors felt it was so important for them to take the action they took, as opposed to why it was constitutionally justified.”

Benson said the members’ decision to participate was a voluntary act, dictated by their faith. He said this was jeopardized by the state’s actions.

“There is no question plaintiffs’ religious faithfulness played a significant role in the administration of the Trust,” he wrote. “The day the Special Fiduciary began his job, however, that was gone, replaced by a secular authority who decided the same matters of Trust property distribution not only based on an entirely new regime of secular criteria, but also on the express condition that religious reasons could not be controlling.”

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