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UT polygamous sect seeks to block land trust sales

UT polygamous sect seeks to block land trust sales

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A southern Utah polygamous church has asked a federal judge to block a state court-appointed accountant from selling assets in the faith's communal land trust.

Attorneys for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sought an injunction from U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson on Wednesday.

The church wants to prevent the sale of assets in the United Effort Plan Trust. Valued at more than $110 million, the trust holds most of the land and homes in the twin FLDS-dominated communities of Hidale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., on the states' border. The trust also holds land in Bountiful, British Columbia.

Utah courts took control of the UEP in 2005, and a judge approved reforms to its religious structure the next year.

In court papers, FLDS attorney Rod Parker contended those reforms violate the constitutional rights of the FLDS to practice their religion. Those rights include giving church leaders authority over trust assets and restricting trust beneficiaries to those who faithfully keep church tenets, he said.

The state takeover of a religious entity like the UEP should never have occurred because the U.S. Constitution "deprives government of any power to take over and operate a religious organization," Parker wrote.

State courts took over control of the trust after state attorneys said church leader Warren Jeffs had fleeced its assets for his own benefit and left its property holdings vulnerable to liquidation through default judgments in civil lawsuits.

Since then, the state court-appointed Salt Lake City accountant, Bruce Wisan, has managed the trust. In a telephone conference Thursday, Benson asked Wisan's attorneys to draft a response to the FLDS petition.

Wisan has transformed the trust into a secular entity that allows for private homeownership and gives former FLDS members the right to claim a share of its assets. His management has also left the trust mired in lawsuits and more than $3 million in debts. He has sought court permission to sell off trust properties to satisfy the debts, much of which is owed to attorneys and his own accounting firm.

A hearing will likely be held sometime in November and Wisan has agreed to not attempt to sell off any assets for now, his attorney Jeff Shields said.

"Our general position is that the Utah Supreme Court considered these matters and rejected them ... but we're not surprised that they want another bite at the apple," Shields said.

In 2008, the FLDS made similar a similar attempt to block Wisan's management of the trust in state court and sought an injunction from the Utah Supreme Court.

Justices said last month that the FLDS had waited too long to object to state oversight of the trust.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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