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Polygamous bishops argue before Utah Supreme Court for say in land deal

SALT LAKE CITY — Five members of a polygamous church, including two bishops, want a say in how a court-appointed land trust sells a piece of farmland once set aside as a temple site.

Attorneys for the Fundamentalist LDS Church argued before the Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday that a lower court judge violated the constitutional rights Lyle Jeffs and James Oler by keeping them out of a United Effort Plan Trust legal dispute. They contend the trust was formed as a charitable, religious entity that requires input from church leaders.

"This is a threat to their way of life," FLDS attorney Stephen Clark told the justices. "They're determined to do what they can to protect that way of life."

As bishops, Jeffs, the brother of jailed FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, and Oler are expected to provide for church members' spiritual and temporal needs.

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. The Utah courts took control of the trust in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement.

Specifically at issue now is the pending sale of a 740-acre parcel on the Utah-Arizona border known as Berry Knoll Farm, a spot the FLDS Church planned to build a temple one day. Clark said the bishops represent a wide array on interests in the land, including those who grow crops and retain water rights.

Jeff Shields, a court-appointed attorney for the trust, said the church's rights are adequately represented by the newly formed Corporation of the President of the FLDS Church, which was set up to remove ecclesiastical factors in trust decisions.

"We don't look at the faithfulness of the members," he said. "We look at their just wants and needs."

Shields argued before the court that if those five FLDS members were allowed to become parties to the sale, it would open the door for thousands of others current and former members assert their own interests.

"It will be chaos if the interveners are allowed to come in," he said.

Rod Parker, another FLDS attorney, said "no matter what happens, it's going to be chaos. Let's face it."

The justices took the case under advisement.

Clark said there is some urgency to the decision because the sale of the farm is moving forward.

Contributing: Associated Press