SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court will hear two arguments relating to the Fundamentalist LDS Church Wednesday, including one asking the justices to overrule a lower court decision authorizing the sale of land they consider sacred.
The hearings are the latest in what has become an ongoing conflict between members of the polygamous group and the state. The struggle between the two has been ongoing since the United Effort Plan trust was accused of abusing its financial powers and a state judge appointed a fiduciary, Bruce Wisan, five years ago.
The UEP was established in 1942 and was fashioned after the United Order, a 19th-century religious concept under which church members donate all their assets to a communal organization and everyone would share so there would be no poverty or materialism.
Utah took over financial oversight of the UEP in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by the group's leader, Warren Jeffs, who is now in prison in Arizona for being an accomplice to rape. He faces other felony charges in Arizona and Texas.
According to court documents filed in the case, the trust was set up, ideally, to "protect the FLDS people."
"The FLDS leaders were using the trust as a tool to expel boys from their homes and families and force preteen and teenage girls to enter into 'spiritual marriages' with men often decades older," one court document alleged.
But FLDS members believe their rights of religious freedom were violated by the reformation and seizure of the trust. In court documents they say the state control of the trust "is an arrogation of state power over religious freedom on a scale not seen since this court dealt with an historical precedent more than a century ago."
When the sale of Berry Knoll Farm, a 438-acre stretch of land set aside as a building site for a temple, was proposed in 2008, the FLDS filed a lawsuit to block the sale. Third District Judge Denise Lindberg authorized the sale of that land in August 2009, a decision that the church is asking the Supreme Court to reverse.
In effect, FLDS leaders are asking for a declaration that their Constitutional rights were violated, an injunction that will prevent Lindberg from taking further action to administer the trust and a termination of the court-appointed special fiduciary as administrator of the trust. End of the year reports from 2009 indicate that the trust is in debt — now estimated at over $3 million — with the vast majority of the additional debt being incurred to fight ongoing litigation. A spokesman for Wisan said the fiduciary had no choice but to sell assets held by the trust to keep FLDS members from losing their homes.
The selling of Berry Knoll to pay the state-appointed Wisan is a major point of contention for FLDS leaders, said church spokesman Willie Jessop. He said Wisan's attitude and administration over the trust has led to "chaos" between Wisan and those in the FLDS community.
"(Berry Knoll) is just one of many issues," Jessop said. "The Harker Ranch is a big problem and just having the fiduciary act like he's our state-ordained bishop, mixing the role between bishop and some government agent … it's been a disaster. His personality and his attitude toward the people has only enhanced that problem and it's boiled over to a point of chaos."
Jessop said the Supreme Court's decision will set a precedent when it comes to trust laws in the state that he feels are at-risk, but said the FLDS people "all have confidence that the Supreme Court can make the right decision."
The Utah State Attorney General's Office, which initially proposed a deal to return most of the land held by the trust to the FLDS Church that was denied by Lindberg, is asking the justices to deny FLDS requests on the basis that the group "lacks legal capacity to sue" because the FLDS is an unchartered group not registered as a legal entity or as an individual, court documents state.
Assistant attorney general Tim Bodily said the his office's intentions were always to protect the properties of those invested in the trust. He said that as the plan has stalled in litigation, it is further from achieving that objective.
"I think currently the office is frustrated, obviously, that it hasn't been resolved and the end in sight is unclear," he said. "There's the feeling that something has to change and I'm not sure we have the answer … and the issues are so varied."
He said it has also been difficult working with FLDS leaders whom he said can be "two-faced." Jeffs' journal entries indicate the then-president of the church was ready and willing to lose much of the trust property to creditors.
"It is somewhat two-faced to turn around and complain about fees and now want land you walked away from five years ago," Bodily said.
The high court will also hear arguments involving attorneys for FLDS leaders from the law firm Snow, Christensen and Martineau, who believe the district court "abused its discretion" in granting Wisan's motion to compel the law firm to disclose documents subject to the attorney-client privilege.
The FLDS church has no affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
e-mail: [email protected]