Judge rejects polygamous church trust settlement
SALT LAKE CITY — A judge on Wednesday rejected a proposed settlement that would have returned control of a state-managed land trust to followers of jailed polygamous leader Warren Jeffs.
The United Effort Plan Trust was formed in 1942 to hold the collective assets of faithful members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Utah courts took control of the trust in 2005 after allegations of mismanagement.
Last month, Utah’s attorney general proposed a settlement giving the majority of trust assets — land and homes in Hildale, Utah; Colorado City, Ariz.; and Bountiful, British Columbia — back to the church, along with control of a cemetery, a park, a dairy and undeveloped land. A limited amount of property was also set aside for former FLDS members who qualify as beneficiaries based on their past contributions to the trust.
Third District Judge Denise Lindberg rejected the proposal Wednesday, saying it “decidedly favors the FLDS church and its adherents to the detriment of other potential trust beneficiaries.”
Revisions to the trust since 2005 have converted the religiously based trust into a secular entity. That’s allowed former church members — whether they left voluntarily or were excommunicated — to return to the community and claim trust assets.
The FLDS believe the change violates a core tenet of their religion called the Holy United Order, which calls for the sharing of assets by those who adhere to church teachings. Historically, church members donated their assets to the trust and then served as caretakers of homes assigned to them by church leaders. Leaving the church has typically meant leaving behind any assets donated to the church and severing ties with family.
Lindberg said a settlement must reflect the religious neutrality now required by the trust and notes that “the FLDS church as an entity” is not a trust beneficiary, although its members may be.
FLDS attorneys Rod Parker and Ken Okazaki rejected that argument Wednesday.
“We have a case here where a religious organization is a participant in litigation,” said Parker. “So by definition, any settlement is going to involve the religious organization in some way.”
The judge also objected to a portion of the settlement that left control of a community cemetery, parks, and a zoo to the FLDS, even though it required access be given to nonmembers.
The settlement was not supported by Bruce Wisan, the court-appointed accountant who has been managing the trust, who shares Lindberg’s belief that the settlement was one-sided.
Wisan’s attorney, Jeff Shields, said he was pleased with Lindberg’s ruling, but that he doesn’t think it means no settlement is possible.
“My position is, there’s still a framework for settlement, it’s the reformed trust,” Shields said.
Shields said that if the parties could agree to follow the revisions to the trust that allow for individual — not communal — property ownership administered through a neutral housing board, “I think we could still do a deal.”
In her ruling, Lindberg said that without religious neutrality, the settlement proposal could possibly violate constitutional and trust laws, because the FLDS practice polygamy, which is illegal in both Utah and Arizona. Court revisions to the UEP make the trust invalid if it is used to promote a religion or doctrine that is “criminal or against public policy.”
Lindberg’s ruling also rejects settlement proposals from other parties with a stake in a settlement outcome, including Elissa Wall, the woman whose 2001 marriage was the basis for the criminal conviction of Jeffs in 2007 on charges that he was an accomplice to her rape.
Lindberg said the proposals were “narrowly focused and therefore cannot result in the global resolution the court and parties were hoping to secure.”
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff expressed disappointment and frustration with an ever-shifting negotiating process that ended short of a global settlement because the parties refused to budge on some points.
Lindberg’s ruling does not provide any suggestions for resolving the issues, and Shurtleff said he’s not sure what comes next.
“We still have standing and I’m sure she’ll ask for input from our office as we move forward,” he said. “What we do know is that without a settlement, there will be years and years of litigation.”
Settlement talks were initiated last fall after some FLDS members sued to block Wisan from selling off trust land set aside for a church temple. A stay on the sale of land known as the Berry Knoll, which is part of Colorado City, has been in place since November, but was lifted last week. A hearing on the sale was scheduled for July 29.