Polygamous sect sues to regain control of trust

/ Source: The Associated Press

Members of a polygamous church are suing to regain control of a property trust, claiming court reforms since 2005 have stripped it of its constitutional rights.

Filed Monday in U.S. District Court, the lawsuit contends that state control has secularized the religiously based United Effort Plan Trust and is dismantling a way of life for members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

"Utah, through its attorney general and the 3rd District Court, is interfering in obvious ways with the exercise of religion by the members of the FLDS church," the lawsuit said.

The $110 million UEP Trust holds the property and homes in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., the traditional home of the FLDS church. It also includes property in British Columbia.

The Utah courts seized the trust in 2005 after state attorneys said church leaders had used its funds for personal gain and had failed to defend it from lawsuits.

Court-appointed fiduciary Bruce Wisan has reformed the trust to strip church leaders of authority over its assets and pave the way for private homeownership. The reforms also call for the trust to be managed based on neutral legal principles, not religious doctrine or practice.

Communal living integral part of religion
FLDS members consider communal living — a principle known as the Law of Consecration and the United Order — an integral part of their religion.

Members formed the trust in 1942, donating their property to benefit the whole church in an act considered an expression of faith.

"But for the religious and spiritual doctrines of the United Order and the Law of Consecration, and the practice of polygamy and other FLDS beliefs and practices, the UEP Trust would never have come into existence," the lawsuit states. "FLDS church members cannot practice the United Order or the Law of Consecration under the reformed trust."

Named as defendants are Wisan, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard.

"I don't think there's a lot of merit to it," Wisan said. He said he anticipates the Utah attorney general's office will take the lead in defending the lawsuit's allegations.

Scott Troxel, a spokesman for the Utah attorney general, said he could not comment because the office has not seen the lawsuit.

'People of the church are united'
No specific plaintiffs are named in the lawsuit, which was filed by Salt Lake City attorneys Rodney Parker and Richard A. Van Wagoner. Parker said none are named because the lawsuit affects all members of the church equally.

"I think it sends the message that the people of the church are united in wanting some relief," Parker said.

FLDS leader Warren Jeffs was convicted in Utah last year as an accomplice to rape for the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her older cousin. He awaits trial in Arizona on similar charges and is charged in Texas with sexual assault of a child.

FLDS church beliefs and practices have roots in the early teachings of Joseph Smith, founder of what is now the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons abandoned the practice of polygamy in the 1890s as a condition of statehood.

An estimated 37,000 self-described fundamentalist Mormons continue the practice across the intermountain West individually or as part of organized religious groups.