SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a five-year-old dispute over control of a communal land trust once held by Warren Jeffs' polygamous church.
The trust is valued at more than $110 million and holds most of the homes and land in Hildale, Utah, Colorado City, Ariz., and Bountiful, British Columbia -- communities that are home to the majority of the estimated 10,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The Utah courts took control of the trust in 2005 after state attorneys alleged mismanagement by Jeffs, claiming he left its assets vulnerable to liquidation by failing to fight a pair of civil lawsuits in 2004.
Attorneys for the FLDS argue that the state's control of the trust violates the sect's religious rights, and want control to return to the leaders. Those opposing the church -- including the Utah and Arizona attorneys general and court-appointed accountant Bruce Wisan, who manages the trust -- say it's too late for church members to ask for such reversals.
Justices held two hearings on the issue Wednesday.
The FLDS consider communal living a religious principle and formed the trust in 1942 so that all who kept church tenets could share in it assets.
Members donated their personal assets to the church, and FLDS leaders were charged with distributing the assets to families or individuals based on need.
But former church members say FLDS leaders employed the trust as a mechanism of control and used its assets as either a punishment or reward for faithfulness. Those who left the faith, voluntarily or through excommunication, were expected to give up any claim to trust assets.
With that in mind, the rewritten or "reformed" trust allows any beneficiary who can prove a legitimate claim to access the communal assets regardless of church membership status. That's opened the door for private landownership and allowed former church members to return to the community.
The FLDS wants Utah's high court to reverse district court rulings that reworked the trust into a secular entity, remove a court-appointed accountant as its current manager and halt a pending sale of trust assets, including land set aside for a church temple.
But opponents say the FLDS should have challenged the court rulings that altered the trust immediately after a 2005 decision by 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg, not years later.
The FLDS waited until 2008 to challenge changes to the trust.
The FLDS follow the early teachings of Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the practice of polygamy, which is believed to bring glorification in heaven. The mainstream Mormon church abandoned the practice in 1890 as a condition of Utah's statehood.
On the Net:
United Effort Plan Trust: http://www.ueptrust.com
Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: http://www.fldstruth.org