October 7, 2008

Federal Lawsuit Filed Over FLDS Trust

By Ben Winslow Deseret News

The Fundamentalist LDS Church has filed a federal lawsuit challenging court-ordered reform efforts to its real-estate arm.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, accuses the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona, the court- appointed special fiduciary of the United Effort Plan Trust, and the judge who reformed that trust of violating the FLDS Church's First Amendment rights.

"The UEP Trust was formed so FLDS Church members could live the United Order and the Law of Consecration by seeking religious stewardships within the meaning of Holy Scripture," church attorney Rod Parker wrote in the lawsuit. "FLDS Church members cannot practice the United Order or the Law of Consecration under the reformed trust."

In 2005, the Utah Attorney General's Office asked the courts to freeze the UEP's assets, alleging that FLDS leader Warren Jeffs and others had fleeced it. A judge in Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court took control of the trust and appointed a special fiduciary to manage the trust and its $110 million in assets, mostly property in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

The trust has undergone reforms that pave the way for private property ownership, doing away with the early-Mormon concept of a "United Order," where the FLDS doled out homes and property according to "just wants and needs."

"Under the court's management, the reformed trust has been operated to discriminate against plaintiffs as members of the FLDS faith," Parker wrote, adding that it is part of an ongoing "sociological and psychological war" with members of the polygamous church.

For years, the FLDS have largely ignored reform efforts, following an edict by Jeffs urging his followers to "say nothing, do nothing, sign nothing." The fiduciary, Bruce Wisan, has said the FLDS resistance to reform efforts has cost millions in legal fees and other bills. Following an April raid on the group's ranch in Texas where hundreds of children were placed in state protective custody because of abuse allegations, the church has begun speaking out and challenging the reforms in court.

By carving religion out of the reforms, the FLDS argue the court is violating their right to practice their religion -- including polygamy. The lawsuit includes a challenge to Utah's prohibition on plural marriage.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff called the lawsuit "ridiculous."

"Everything we've done in going to court is to protect the rank- and-file members of the church from losing out on what they were entitled to in the trust because Warren Jeffs was not protecting the trust monies," he told the Deseret News on Monday.

Wisan did not return a call seeking comment. In a separate filing in 3rd District Court last week, Wisan asks a judge to allow the sale of land on the Utah-Arizona border known as the "Berry Knoll Farm" for $3 million.

"Having made a calculated decision to abandon the trust, rather than appear before this court to answer charges of neglect and malfeasance, it appears that FLDS leaders are now launching a full- scale assault against the trust and the fiduciary," Wisan's attorney Mark Callister wrote, adding: "Funds are urgently needed by the trust to pay for past debts, current trust administration and to defend legal actions filed by movants and other parties against the trust."

Parker maintains the FLDS are being deprived of constitutional rights.

"They can't practice their religion without control over their property," Parker told the Deseret News. "It has nothing to do with polygamy so much as it has to do with their ability to practice the united order. They can't do it if the state of Utah is controlling their property. The united order demands it be controlled by the bishop."

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