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SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. District Judge Dee Benson gave parties in the convoluted legal battle over the FLDS Church's United Effort Plan Trust 20 days to reach an agreement that essentially involves a workable exit strategy for the state.
The mandate issued Tuesday by Benson comes on the heels of his late February ruling that the state's management of a Utah-based polygamist sect's assets violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
Benson warned assistant attorneys general from Utah and Arizona that continued state-management of the assets belonging to the FLDS Church are "constitutional violations of a serious magnitude," that warrant cessation as soon as possible.
"My main concern is that this continual violation," into the everyday lives of "thousands of people not happen. The government is where it shouldn't be."
Utah state courts seized control of the trust — valued at more than $110 million — in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by church leaders, including Warren Jeffs, now jailed in Texas awaiting trial on criminal charges of bigamy, aggravated sexual assault and assault.
Benson said such allegations did not legally justify the state's intrusion into the religious sect, which represents a "constitutional violation of the first order."
The judge resisted urgings Tuesday by Arizona and Utah prosecutors to allow his ruling to preserve the "status quo," while appeals are filed or the Utah Supreme Court revisits the issue in light of pending cases under its purview.
"I am not inclined to preserve the status quo, when the status quo is a violation of the law," Benson said.
He said what the Utah Supreme Court does or does not do is not relevant to his decision, which rests squarely on the state's unwarranted meddling in the every day lives of the FLDS faithful.
"You may as well tell me England is considering something," he said.
Benson said the next 20 days — before the next hearing on April 5 — should be approached by all parties in "good faith" to eek out provisions that govern what should happen to get the state out of the business of the FLDS Church.
Those provisions, according to the FLDS attorney Rod Parker, should include the immediate removal of Bruce Wisan as the state-appointed special fiduciary and the clear understanding the religious leader, or bishop, in the communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., handle personal matters on behalf of members.
Benson said he understands there are complex property arrangements and financial obligations such as payments of taxes that aren't easily overcome with such an order, but stressed it is incumbent for the attorneys to resolve the issues.
"I am not unaware of what a mess it must be down there. … The number of disputes must be difficult to manage. It's a little bit like trying to figure out how to get out of Iraq."