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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Plan to Sell Polygamists’ Land Hits Another Bump

(CN) - A federal judge has made good on his promise to restore control over more than $100 million of communally held property in Arizona and Utah to a polygamist sect.

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson had signed a memorandum opinion and order in February that granteda preliminary injunction to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The church members had been trying remove a court-appointed special fiduciary and take back control of the United Effort Plan trust, which controls about 5,000 acres of land consisting of the Berry Knoll Farm and two sister-communities in Arizona and Utah.

Accounting for the more than 700 houses, farms, dairies and other businesses on the land, the property has an estimated worth of $100 million.

Details as to the extent of the injunction were forthcoming until Thursday, when Benson suspended the fiduciary, Bruce Wisan, and stayed a controversial proposed sale of the Berry Knoll Farm, which members of the sect consider to be on sacred ground.

When church members failed to defend the trust against several lawsuits relating to the alleged criminal activities of sect leader Warren Jeffs, a Utah state court intervened. Though the court rewrote the trust's basic tenants to make it more secular and appointed a special fiduciary to administer it, church members did not join the fight until mid-2008 when Wisan threatened to sell the Berry Knoll Farm to pay legal and accounting debts.

In his order, Benson reiterated his earlier finding of a "strong likelihood of the plaintiffs' success on the merits of its constitutional claims and the clear weight of the balance of harms in favor of preventing a serious, ongoing violation of the Establishment Clause."

The order gives control of the trust, including financial and property records and all of the trust's assets, to the Corporation of the President (COP) of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. "The COP may administer the property on a temporary basis according to its religious principles," Benson wrote.

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