(CN) – A polygamist sect won an injunction to stop Utah from selling land that church members consider sacred, but the state Supreme Court is poised to upset the ruling once it concludes briefing on Friday.
The dispute arose after Utah took over a $100 million property trust belonging to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 2005. It had intervened amid claims of mismanagement stemming from the alleged crimes of Warren Jeffs, the church’s incarcerated leader.
In recent years, several entities have sued the trust as an accomplice to Jeffs, who is now facing charges of bigamy and sexual assault in Texas after successfully vacating an earlier rape conviction in Utah.
The United Effort Plan United Effort Plan trust 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.
When church members – presumably following Jeffs’ orders – failed to defend the trust against several lawsuits, 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 the court-appointed fiduciary threatened to sell the Berry Knoll Farm to pay legal and accounting debts.
Some 5,000 members of the church who live in the rural community of Colorado City – Hildale, along the Arizona-Utah border, consider the farmland as sacred to the church.
The group had initially sought a restraining order to halt the sale of Berry Knoll Farm, but action on the issue was delayed as the parties attempted to settle out of court. After those efforts failed in 2009, a state court authorized the sale of the farm.
Officials sued by the church – including the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona, the special fiduciary, Bruce Wisan, and the judge of Utah’s Third Judicial District – say that the state needed to reform the trust to prevent the property from falling back into Jeffs’ hands.
While the sect appealed to the Utah Supreme Court to stop the sale on constitutional grounds, a federal judge granted an injunction.
Ultimately, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that the case was barred by the doctrine of laches – effectively saying that the plaintiffs had waited too long to get involved.
Despite that finding, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson renewed that injunction on Feb. 24. The 48-page ruling says that the state violated the sect’s constitutional rights.
Though Jeffs “would simply continue to use the trust property for nefarious purposes,” Benson said that protective intentions do not give the state carte blanche to violate the sect’s rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
“No matter how much the state court attempts to label its actions as applying neutral principles and thereby avoid constitutional problems, what it did was an impermissible rewriting of the trust document, where the religious and secular are inextricably intertwined,” he wrote. “There was no proper use of the so-called ‘neutral principles.'”
The judge continued that “the state actors had no authority to act as they did.”
Faced with the church members’ initial failure to defend the trust, the state court could have ordered the trust to be revoked, Dee said. “But they had no authority, consistent with the United States Constitution, to redefine the trust, reform the trust, or administer the trust,” according to the ruling. “Such state action constitutes excessive involvement with religion in violation of the First Amendment.”
Shortly after that ruling, the Supreme Court ordered the parties to submit briefs by March 25 as to whether Benson even had jurisdiction to hear the issue in light of the previous laches ruling.
Utah’s attorney general asked Benson to stay the injunction in light of that development, but the judge refused.
“You’re violating the constitution everyday. So why should I care about what the Utah Supreme Court is doing,” Benson told the attorneys general at a March 15 hearing, according to the Salt Lake City Tribune’s coverage.