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Religious sect challenges land seisure

SALT LAKE CITY — A polygamous sect is asking the Utah Supreme Court to overturn a state court decision that stripped the religious purposes from its communal land trust.

In a court filing, attorneys for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints argue that making the United Effort Plan Trust secular was a violation of the faith's constitutionally protected religious rights.

Valued at more than $110 million, the trust holds most of the property in Hildale, Utah; Colorado City, Ariz.; and Bountiful, British Columbia — communities that are homes to FLDS members.

The UEP was formed in 1942 on a religious principle known as the Holy United Order, which calls for the sharing of assets for the benefit of all who follow the tenets of the faith.

Utah's 3rd District Court seized the trust after allegations of mismanagement by church leader Warren Jeffs in 2005. Judge Denise Lindberg later approved a reworked version of the trust with secular goals, including private ownership of homes and an expanded class of trust beneficiaries. The changes have allowed former church members to return to the communities to claim a share of the assets.

The FLDS want Utah's Supreme Court to declare the changes to the trust unconstitutional, remove court-appointed accountant Bruce Wisan as the trust's manager and halt any pending sales of property or other management activities under way.

The appeal comes after a year of failed attempts by FLDS members to gain legal standing in 3rd District Court proceedings. A settlement attempt that would have returned control of the trust back to the FLDS also failed. Some trust parcels are now at risk of being sold or lost to forfeiture.

Commandments display spurs dispute

CINCINNATI —Their new argument in the 10-year dispute follows a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that McCreary and Pulaski counties had a predominantly religious purpose for the display. However, the court has also ruled that religious materials could be allowed as part of an educational or historical display.

The counties' lawyer told a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in conference call arguments that the revised display the counties want to use satisfies the high court's requirement.

"They have done everything possible to wipe away the past," said attorney Mathew Staver. "They have indicated their purpose is completely and wholly secular."

The display titled "Foundations of American Law and Government," also has the Declaration of Independence, the Star-Spangled Banner, the Bill of Rights and other historical documents. Staver said rulings in courts since 2005 have upheld the same display elsewhere.

American Civil Liberties Union attorneys say the counties' goal is to promote religion and they made changes only to improve their chances in court.

"This was a lawyer telling a client, 'You've got a better chance of winning if you do this,'" said ACLU lawyer David Friedman. "It was a litigation-driven resolution ... We have to look at the rest of the history."

— The Associated Press