Evictions Follow Bitter Religious Split

Salt Lake Tribune/September 2, 1998
By Tom Zoellner

Hildale, Utah -- Fayila Williams' house in the southern Utah town of Hildale is built in a crazy-quilt architectural style that might be described as ``late polygamist.''

Its concrete foundation was hand-poured in 1958 by her late husband, Jerold, who made a fireplace out of rock and grafted new additions onto the house as he acquired more wives.

Now, the dominant polygamous church in town wants to evict the 79-year-old widow and bulldoze the rambling three-story house.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), which owns nearly all the land and houses in Hildale, has claimed the building is unsafe -- a ``maze of hallways piled with rubbish,'' according to the church's attorney.

Williams' family sees it differently.

``What they're doing is using the building codes as a battering ram to steal houses,'' said her son, John Williams. ``It's intentional harassment of an old lady.''

The dispute over the house is rooted in a religious conflict that tore the town into two factions and culminated in a lawsuit, now a decade old.

The FLDS church, the larger and more conservative of the two groups, had sought to reclaim homes of its ex-members who had defected to the rival polygamous sect. Twenty-one dissident families refused to be evicted and sued the church.

Fifth District Judge Phillip Eves ruled in 1996 that the FLDS church may indeed force tenants from their homes, but must pay for any improvements made upon the land.

The FLDS church appealed the ruling and kept sending out eviction notices.

Nelda Beagley got one in June. It told her to pack up and be out of her house in 10 days. She is still there.

``I really don't have any other place to go,'' said the 51-year-old mother of 10, who shares a husband with one of Williams' daughters. ``We're just barely making month-to-month.''

R. Scott Berry, the Salt Lake City attorney who speaks for the FLDS church, has said that the motivation for the eviction notices is a concern for the fire hazard posed by the Beagley and Williams houses.

The church has made a good-faith offer to help Williams and Nelda Beagley find another living situation if they comply with their eviction notices, Berry contended.

The FLDS church believes that taking multiple wives is the true path of salvation -- despite state laws explicitly banning the practice and the ecclesiastical scorn of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which excommunicates anyone practicing polygamy today.

The polygamous church -- the largest organization of its kind in the world -- has nearly 5,000 members in the border towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., and owns virtually all of the land and houses there.

The trust which owns the land, known as the United Effort Plan (UEP), is loosely modeled on the utopian economic ideals preached by Mormon prophet Brigham Young in the 1860s.

This unusual ownership structure can also be traced to a long-time fear among polygamists that the government could arrest them for breaking the law -- and seize their property and assets.

Believers in Hildale were told that donating their houses to the church was better than having an individual deed because authorities could never attach trust-owned property.

In 1890, federal authorities had threatened to seize the Salt Lake Temple and other property of Mormon Church shortly before the leaders agreed to give up the doctrine of plural marriage.

Now, dissident members who offend the FLDS church and the UEP have found themselves at risk of receiving an eviction notice.

Arthur Hammon had to scratch his head over a series of letters from the church's lawyers. First, they wrote him in 1997 telling him his property taxes were overdue.

When he apologized and sent a check, they returned it by certified mail, explaining that his being in the house didn't serve the ``religious mission'' of the church any longer.

Hammon, a member of the rival Centennial Park church, was reluctant to talk about the dispute, saying only that it was a ``family quarrel.''

The FLDS church declines to accept any money from excommunicated members in order to avoid the perception that donors could claim any future interest in the church's real property, attorney Berry has said.

It is for this reason that tenants who the church considers to be apostates are told not to make any more than $500 worth of improvements on their properties.

Williams falls into this category. Her attorney, Reid Lambert, said the church's contention that the house is a firetrap was nothing more than "an abject pretext'' to chase her out of the community.

"The house isn't in great shape, but it's similar to a number of other dwellings down there,'' said Lambert. "It's just a pretext for getting rid of these people.''

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