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Attorneys are sparring about whether a jury should be allowed to consider if members of a polygamous sect accused of orchestrating a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme had a constitutional right to give the food to a communal storehouse as part of their religious beliefs.
Federal prosecutors want a judge to ban defense attorneys from making the argument because they say law clearly states food stamps can only be used by members of households approved for the benefits.
Federal public defender Kathryn Nester countered in a new court filing Wednesday that the motivation of the donations and religious teachings of the group are intrinsically connected to the case.
Nester said the question can't be assessed in a vacuum without understanding the history and practices of the community on the Utah-Arizona border that is led by imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart said last month he plans to hold a hearing at a later date to address a matter he considers pivotal to the case.
A trial date is set for end of May, but that's likely to be pushed back because the prosecution has yet to present all its evidence to defense attorneys. That includes aerial videos and footage from surveillance cameras installed at a polygamous town's general store.
The defendants have all pleaded not guilty to the charges. They include several leaders, including Lyle Jeffs, the brother of Warren Jeffs who runs day-to-day operations.
The sect, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago. Warren Jeffs, who is considered a prophet, is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides.
Prosecutors say sect leaders began instructing followers in 2011 to buy items with their food stamp cards and give them to a church warehouse where leaders decided how to distribute the products to followers.
High-ranking leaders and their families ate well while others were left with scraps, prosecutors say. One witness told investigators she and her family ate only noodles, brown rice, tomato juice and sometimes bread. Another woman said her children were living off toast.
The food stamps were also cashed at sect-owned stores without the users getting anything in return, with the funds then diverted to front companies and used to pay thousands for a tractor, truck and other items, prosecutors say.
The food-stamp crackdown marked the government's latest move against the sect, coinciding with legal battles in two states over child labor and discrimination against nonbelievers.
A jury in Phoenix decided in March that the towns violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection, building permits and water hookups. The Department of Justice has asked a judge to disband the town police department as punishment.