FLDS bishops appeal ruling to Utah Supreme Court

FLDS bishops appeal ruling to Utah Supreme Court

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Two polygamous church bishops are asking the Utah Supreme Court to overturn a district court's decision that they say denies them their constitutional right to carry out their ecclesiastical duties.

Attorneys for Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints bishops Lyle Jeffs and James Oler filed a notice of appeal with the court Aug. 26.

In May, Jeffs and Oler had sought to intervene in a 3rd District Court dispute over the United Effort Plan Trust, which has been under court control since 2005.

The trust holds most of the land and homes in a church enclave in Bountiful, British Columbia, as well as in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., the twin towns where most church members live.

As church leaders, Jeffs and Oler sought legal standing in the case on behalf of FLDS members. They also wanted to block a proposed sale of a church farm and land set aside in Colorado City for a church temple. In a third motion, they asked 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg to remove accountant Bruce Wisan as the court-appointed trust manager.

They contended that the management of the charitable, religious trust required the participation and input of church leaders.

Lindberg denied all three motions in July.

Jeffs, the brother of jailed FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, is the bishop for Hildale and Colorado City, while Oler heads the faith's Bountiful branch. As bishops, the two men are expected to provide for the spiritual and physical needs of church members.

Jeffs has argued that while he knew the court had supplanted much of his authority, his congregants had a substantial interest in the outcome of the UEP dispute because they represent a majority of trust beneficiaries.

"The effect of the district court's denial of the motions to intervene is to ensure the continued violation of those persons' constitutional, statutory and common-law rights while denying them and the thousands of FLDS they represent voice," attorney Stephen C. Clark wrote in a statement filed with the court Aug. 26.

The case needs a review by Utah's Supreme Court because it raises questions about the "nature and extent of state power to reform and administer a religious charitable trust," in a manner that conflicts with the original intentions of its founders, Clark wrote.

Jeffs Shields, an attorney who represents Wisan, said he believes Lindberg's rulings have not violated anyone's rights, but that it wouldn't hurt to have the issue settled by Utah's high court. He said he the FLDS would likely use the "violates our doctrine" argument to challenge almost anything.

"I don't think its legitimate. What's really going on is they're playing victim," said Shields.

The charitable trust was formed in the 1940s to hold the collective assets of church members, including homes, undeveloped property, food and other resources. It was administered by senior leaders and bishops were tasked with the distribution of assets based on the needs of congregants.

Allegations of mismanagement by church leaders forced the courts to seize the trust in 2005 and put a non-FLDS accountant in charge.

Since then, the trust's religious purpose has been dismantled. The UEP now has a secular purpose and its beneficiary class has been expanded to include former FLDS who either left voluntarily or were excommunicated from the church.

Oler and Lyle Jeffs contend that stripping religion from the trust violates the intentions of trust founders. A 1998 trust document says the trust should be dissolved and the assets returned to the church if its religious purposes became impracticable or impossible to execute, court papers state.

The court should have heeded those directives rather than rewrite the trust with a new charitable purpose, Clark wrote.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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