Federal judge blocks polygamous sect's land sale

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 15 2010 5:07 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge has blocked the sale of assets held in a polygamous church's communal land trust while he decides whether the faith's constitutional rights have been violated by Utah authorities.

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson issued a temporary restraining order late Tuesday, stopping a pending sale of land held in the United Effort Plan trust.

Valued at more than $110 million, trust 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 is also property in Bountiful, British Columbia.

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

Jeffs, 55, also faces a possible retrial in Utah, where the state Supreme Court overturned his 2007 conviction on two counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in the marriage of a 14-year-old follower to her 19-year-old cousin.

Some 6,000 of the church's 10,000 members have sued in federal court over the land trust, claiming the state intervention violates their religious rights.

Attorneys for the FLDS had sought a blanket injunction that blocked all trust management activity, including stopping a series of ongoing state court lawsuits for control of the trust.

Benson rejected that request, saying he didn't want to get "bogged down" in the infighting that has stalled a resolution of the case which began more than five years ago.

Instead, Benson's ruling focused narrowly on two issues — the sale of farm and grazing land known as Berry Knoll, which has been set aside as a site for a future church temple, a plan to subdivide the land in Hildale and Colorado City. He also blocked any other action that might cause irreparable harm to either FLDS members or the trust itself.

The injunction is to remain in place until Benson rules in the larger issue of whether the state should have seized control of the trust and allowed for revisions that have stripped it of its original religious principles.

"Whether (the state) is entitled to be in this arena at all ... I think that's a very important constitutional question," Benson said.

The attorneys general of Utah and Arizona, which moved jointly to seize the trust, contend that the case does not belong in federal court and that no one's religious rights were violated. Instead, they argue that the state's action was necessary to prevent the trust assets from being liquidated through default judgments in civil lawsuits that church leaders failed to defend.

The FLDS argue that state intervention is part of larger effort to dismantle their way of life and their religious practices. The sect believes communal living is a religious principle, and it formed the trust in the 1940s so faithful church members could share their collective assets.

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