Polygamous sect wants judge to block land sale

By Jennifer Dobner

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 3 2010 10:21 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge could decide on Friday whether to block a state court from selling off assets held in the communal land trust of the southern Utah polygamous church led by Warren Jeffs.

Attorneys for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have asked U.S. District Judge Dee Benson for an injunction to temporarily stop the sale of land in the United Effort Plan trust.

A hearing is set for 2 p.m. in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court.

The communal trust, valued at more than $110 million, holds most of the property and homes in the FLDS-dominated communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., which straddle the states' border. There are also properties in Bountiful, British Columbia.

The Utah state courts seized control of the UEP in 2005 after state attorneys said Jeffs and other church leaders had used trust assets for their own benefit and left property holdings vulnerable to liquidation through default judgments in civil lawsuits.

A year later, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg approved changes that stripped religious requirements from the trust, allowing for former FLDS members to claim beneficiary rights.

The FLDS contend that state control of the trust violates their religious rights. The sect believes communal living is a religious principle and formed the trust so that faithful church members could share their collective assets.

A court-appointed accountant now wants to sell some assets — including nearly 800 acres of farm and grazing land known as Berry Knoll — to pay off a multimillion dollar debt incurred since 2005. An offer to sell the land to a developer who belongs to a rival polygamous group is pending.

Lindberg initially approved the sale of Berry Knoll in 2008. That sparked a legal battle, including a previous petition for a federal injunction, which has lasted two years and temporarily halted plans for a sale.

In 2008, Benson decided against an injunction so that state proceedings could play out.

The FLDS renewed its petition to block the sale in October after Lindberg said the sale should go forward.

In court papers, FLDS attorney Rod Parker said the state's takeover of the trust should never have been allowed. Parker said the U.S. Constitution prohibits government from controlling or operating any religious organization.

The Utah Supreme Court upheld the trust takeover earlier this year, saying the FLDS church — which didn't challenge state controls until 2008 — had waited too long to object.

Jeffs, the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was extradited to Texas this week from Utah to faces charges of felony bigamy, aggravated sexual assault and assault. The 2008 raid swept more than 400 children into protective custody, and left a dozen men in the church facing charges that include sexual assault and bigamy, stemming from a 2008 raid of the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, where authorities seized more than 400 children and placed them in state custody on suspicion that the girls were being sexually abused and the boys were being raised to be sexual predators.

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