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FLDS bishops take appeal to Utah Supreme Court

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court will decide whether a state judge has violated the constitutional rights of two polygamous church bishops by keeping them out of a land trust legal battle.

Lyle Jeffs and James Oler of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sought standing in the 3rd District Court dispute over the United Effort Plan Trust.

In court papers, attorneys for Jeffs and Oler contend that the trust was founded as a religious, charitable entity and that its management requires input from church leaders. They say the ruling by 3rd District Judge Denise A. Lindberg prevents the two men from carrying out their ecclesiastical duties.

Justices will hear arguments in the case on Tuesday.

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. It was formed in the 1940s to hold the collective assets of church members, including homes, undeveloped property, food and other resources.

Jeffs, the brother of jailed FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, is the bishop for the twin border towns and 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.

The Utah courts took control of the trust in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement. Lindberg appointed a Salt Lake City accountant to manage the trust that year and has since approved reforms to convert the trust into a secular entity and expand the beneficiary class to include former FLDS members.

The changes have sparked a legal battle for control of the more than $110 million in property holdings that has dragged on for years.

Attorneys for the FLDS have argued that while the court has supplanted much of the authority formerly given to church bishops — who in the past had assigned land and homes to FLDS families — congregants still have a substantial interest in the outcome of the UEP dispute.

"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.

Jeffs Shields, a court-appointed attorney who represents the trust, disagrees about the impact of Lindberg's rulings, but has said it would not hurt to have the issue settled by Utah's high court. He said the FLDS would likely use the "violates our doctrine" argument to challenge almost anything.

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