A polygamous sect is asking the Utah Supreme Court to overturn a state court decision that stripped the religious purposes from its communal land trust.
In a court filing Tuesday, attorneys for the Fundamentalist LDS Church say making the United Effort Plan Trust secular was a violation of the faith's constitutionally protected religious rights.
Valued at more than $110 million, the trust holds most of the property in Hildale, Utah; Colorado City, Ariz.; and Bountiful, British Columbia — communities home to FLDS members.
The UEP was formed in 1942 on a religions principle known as the Holy United Order, which calls for the sharing of assets for the benefit of all who follow the tenets of the faith.
Members donated their assets, including homes, undeveloped land or other resources and church bishops meted out benefits to families based on need.
Utah's 3rd District Court seized the trust after allegations of mismanagement by church leader Warren Jeffs in 2005. Judge Denise Lindberg later approved a reworked version of the trust with secular goals, including private ownership of homes and an expanded class of trust beneficiaries. The changes have allowed former church members to return to the communities to claim a share of the assets.
The FLDS want Utah's Supreme Court to declare the changes to the trust unconstitutional, remove court-appointed accountant Bruce Wisan as the trust's manager and halt any pending sales of property or other management activities under way.
"What we are trying to say is that this whole reformation and putting Bruce Wisan in as the state-ordained bishop is illegitimate," Rod Parker, an attorney for the FLDS said. "It could not be managed by the state or Bruce Wisan, because they are not the priesthood."
Wisan declined to comment, saying he had not yet seen the court filing. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, whose office initiated the seizure of the trust, declined comment for the same reason.
The appeal comes after a year of failed attempts by FLDS members to gain legal standing in 3rd District Court proceedings. A settlement attempt that would have returned control of the trust back to the FLDS also failed. Some trust parcels are now at risk of being sold or lost to forfeiture.
In a 58-page filing, Parker argues that the court was right to step in to protect the trust in 2005. Church leaders had failed to defend civil lawsuits in 2004, leaving its assets vulnerable to liquidation through default judgments.
But the trust should have essentially been dissolved — and the assets turned back to the church — not rewritten or "reformed," Parker wrote in the appeal, filed on behalf of the faith membership of roughly 10,000.
"In doing so, the court supplanted the fundamentally religious nature and purposes of the trust with allegedly 'neutral principles,'" court papers say.
Since then, the FLDS believe Wisan has engaged in a court-approved mission to decimate the trust and discriminate against church members, Parker wrote.
If the Utah Supreme Court fails to intervene, the FLDS will suffer an ongoing violation of their rights and suffer irreparable harm through the loss of properties purchased and donated to the trust as an expression of faith, according to the documents.