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Citing 'eroded' respect for the court, judge issues restraining order in FLDS school dispute

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 12:27 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Fearing that respect for the court has "eroded" among those belonging to the FLDS Church, a 3rd District judge issued a temporary restraining order Thursday that will require members of the polygamous sect and law enforcement to follow its dictates in a property occupancy issue.

The ruling came as tensions are reportedly rising in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., because of a deadline church leader Warren Jeffs has reportedly set for church members to prove their loyalty to him.

Judge John Paul Kennedy issued the ruling following a hearing in an effort to keep members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church out of a Hildale-area school that was leased to a former sect member. According to a complaint filed Thursday, a number of FLDS members have been occupying the school buildings even though the former member of their faith still holds a valid occupancy agreement.

Richard Holm filed the complaint in 3rd District Court Thursday alleging that Jeffs, Lyle Jeffs, the FLDS Church itself and a number of its members have attempted to take over the school, which he runs with his brother, after his brother fell out of favor with those in the church.

"Thomas Holm's standing among the FLDS has been placed in question to the point that it no longer appears that he is considered a member of the FLDS Church, and, as a result, a contest has arisen over the use and control the Holm School by Richard Holm and Thomas Holm on the one hand and the FLDS on the other," the complaint states. "As a result, the Holm brothers and the FLDS Church are asserting competing rights to the use and occupancy the Holm School."

Richard Holm was "expelled" from the church in 2003, but was issued a lease to the school, located at 1055 Carling Street in Hildale, Washington County, per a leasing agreement issued by state-appointed special fiduciary Bruce Wisan in 2006. According to the complaint, he and his brother have used the Holm School "as a school for their respective non-FLDS and FLDS children, as well as for the education of the children of dozens of other FLDS parents."

But after Thomas Holm's membership status was called into question, the complaint states, locks to the building were changed. They said they noticed several male FLDS Church members in the main building who would not allow Richard Holms inside.

An FLDS Church member informed Holm that the utilities had been transferred to his name and the school was now "priesthood property." Local police officers, who are generally aligned with Warren Jeffs and the church, arrived and said they would not order anyone to leave the property and said it was a "civil issue."

After Thursday's court hearing in which the order was entered, Holm's attorney Greg Hoole said the occupancy agreement Holm had should have been enough for police to evict the FLDS members, but police said eviction would require a court order. In the hearing, attorneys indicated Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap and the sheriff's office said they would help enforce the order, if it was entered.

"What I'm concerned with is the lack of respect for the court, particularly the 10th Circuit," the judge said Thursday. "It's very distressing that the court, that the rule of law seems to be eroded in this area."

Belnap said Washington County sheriff's officials responded to the school on Tuesday and were able to resolve matters peacefully, but he said they are prepared to help in the future, if need be. Still, he said the court is the proper venue to settle this issue.

"The point of the sheriff's office and my involvement is, 1) that until a judge says otherwise, holders of occupancy agreements are entitled to enjoy their property free from interference and, 2) is that people who disagree with that for whatever reason should address that matter in the court and not on the street level," he said.

Wisan called Belnap's commitment to enforce the law a "huge step."

Additional similar incidents are expected because Jeffs has reportedly set a Dec. 31 deadline for church members to prove their loyalty by way of intense personal interviews and an order that male members pay $5,000 a month to the church — a move that has prompted some members to move and others to be excommunicated by those in the faith.

"It's a possibility," Wisan said of added tension and altercations like the one Holm has found himself in. I certainly think that other confrontations could occur, because the feeling seems to be ratcheting up."

The school is just one of many properties owned by the United Effort Plan trust, which was created by the FLDS Church in 1942 on the concept of a "united order," allowing followers to share in its assets. Utah courts took control of the trust in 2005 following allegations that it had been mismanaged by Jeffs. Wisan, an accountant, was appointed to oversee management of the trust.

Members of the sect have long held that 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg's decision to reform the trust, which is valued at more than $110 million and holds most of the property in Hildale, Colorado City and Bountiful, British Columbia, and appoint Wisan was a violation of their First Amendment rights to practice their religion freely.

In February, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson issued a ruling calling state action to oversee the UEP trust a "virtual takeover" that was totally unconstitutional. Benson issued an injunction ordering that the church's assets be returned to FLDS leaders and prohibiting any further action by the state-appointed special fiduciary when it came to management of the trust.

Lindberg responded by ordering that the special fiduciary maintain control over the trust's assets, but agreed that no action should be taken until the issue is resolved. Lindberg then appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to halt implementation of Benson's order. The appeals court issued an indefinite stay on Benson's order until it can resolve the case, finding there could be a "threat of irreparable harm" if it did not grant Lindberg's request.

Still, the complaint filed Thursday states that church members are using Benson's order as justification for their actions.

"In an argumentative and loud manner, Berklee Holm (a brother to Richard and Thomas) also said that Bruce Wisan was not in charge, that they would not recognize his authority, that Judge Lindberg was wrong, that Judge Benson had taken control, and that Judge Benson had given the control over to the FLDS."

The next day, Richard Holm presented the occupancy agreement and a copy of the 10th Circuit order that Benson's ruling be stayed to police and they had the FLDS members dispersed. But when Holm returned the next day, he discovered church members had slept overnight in the school.

In the complaint, he asked for the temporary restraining order, damages and a declaratory judgment that would return possession of the school to Holm and prevent church members from interfering with him. The temporary restraining order issued by Kennedy will be in effect until Jan. 3, when a preliminary injunction hearing will be scheduled.

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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