For the past three years, members of a polygamous sect stayed silent as the state took over and began to dismantle their 66-year-old communal property trust.
At least 300 men, women and children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints crowded into a federal courtroom and spilled into hallways Wednesday, as lawyers sought to block a state court hearing on the proposed sale of land they consider sacred.
U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson took no immediate action, but asked the sect's attorneys to give him a report on the hearing, set for Friday in St. George. He will later decide whether to hear claims that its religious rights were violated in the takeover and management of its communal property trust, the United Effort Plan.
Sect members plan to turn out again for Friday's hearing, and will present 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg with a petition with 4,000 signatures objecting to the sale. The sect also has launched multiple court actions aimed at stopping the breakup of the trust - and reclaiming a say in its management.
The tipping point: The proposed sale of Berry Knoll Farm, located just south of the Utah-Arizona state line and the subject of Friday's hearing. Fiduciary Bruce R. Wisan, who was out of town and did not attend the hearing, wants to sell the land because the trust is out of money; neither he nor his attorneys have been paid in 18 months.
"We'd like to sell it as soon as possible," Zach Shields, one of Wisan's attorneys, told Benson, but added the sale was not imminent.
Friday's hearing was requested by three FLDS members who say the property is spiritually, historically and economically critical to the community - all claims Wisan disputes.
But more is at stake than the proposed sale of the 711-acre farm. It is part of a broader clash over the court's move to secularize the sect's trust, which until now had gone unchallenged.
The $110-million UEP Trust holds virtually all property in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., occupied mostly by active FLDS members.
The Utah Attorney General's Office asked the court to takeover the trust after the sect failed to defend it against two lawsuits that targeted its assets. The state also charged former trustees with mismanaging those assets.
Had the lawsuits gone forward, Shields told Benson Wednesday, thousands of residents might have lost their homes.
Lindberg reformed the trust to remove its original religious purpose and gave Wisan wide latitude to manage it. He settled the lawsuits, recovered some assets and then rolled out a plan to subdivide the communal property.
Sect members refused to participate in any of that despite repeated Lindberg's repeated requests for input, Shields said Wednesday, and they never raised any constitutional claims until now. "I think it's too late," he said.
Wisan's attorneys have said in court filings that they are engaged in a "psychological and sociological war" with the sect and "conspirators" who want to thwart the state's oversight.
"We're trying to bring equality into the community and give people free agency," Wisan said before the hearing. "The group that has usurped power from [FLDS leader Warren S. Jeffs] doesn't like that."
But in federal and state court filings, the FLDS argue the state has attempted to disenfranchise the church and, by selling and subdividing the land, undermine a key tenet of members' faith: Living in a "Holy United Order."
Members consider donations of land, money and labor to the church, funneled through the trust, to be consecrations or tithes. To take property back would be a breach of faith.
"What's at stake is the preservation of the faith itself," Stephen C. Clark, an attorney representing sect members, told Benson.
One of those members said he did not step forward sooner to object because he did not realize the state had "declared war" on the sect.
"When you realize the doctor you've got is Kevorkian instead of the family doctor you thought you had, you're going to object because you realize it's designed to kill you, not help you," said Willie Jessop, one of the FLDS members who requested the hearing.
Clark said Benson's decision to postpone action was "better than losing. The most important thing is that the court and the trustee recognize it is important to address these issues before the property is sold."
Benson's questions during the hearing, he said, showed the judge "recognized there is a fairly obvious issue " of whether the sect's right to free exercise of religion was violated "by removing a bishop, appointing an accountant and replacing religious criteria with the state criteria."