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The LDS Church and attorneys for four Navajos who claim they were sexually abused after placement in Utah homes by a now-defunct church program have agreed to suspend their lawsuits pending a decision on whether Navajo Tribal Court or federal court is the proper venue to the hear the allegations.
Church attorney David Williams told U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby on Monday that the stand-down had been agreed to while the church amends its own complaint filed in Salt Lake City to include a fourth case of alleged abuse.
The church is asking Shelby to declare that federal court and not Tribal Court is the proper jurisdiction to hear the lawsuits. The judge set a hearing on the issue for Aug. 22 and he said he hoped to rule on the issues at that time.
Two female and two male Navajos allege they were abused in the '60s and '70s after they were placed in Utah homes through the church's "Indian Student Placement Program," which took Navajo minors from the reservation in the Four Corners region and sent them to live with Utah families who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
While living with those families or in the care of LDS Social Services the lawsuits allege the plaintiffs were sexually abused. They filed lawsuits in Navajo Tribal Court seeking damages from the church.
In May, the church filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City arguing that the alleged abuses took place off the reservation and that federal court was the proper venue to consider the allegations. It asked for orders to restrain the Navajos from continuing their lawsuits in Tribal Court.
Shelby said it seemed unusual to ask that the individual plaintiffs be restrained while not also naming the Tribal Court as a defendant.
Williams promised arguments on that issue when the church files an amended lawsuit and asks for a preliminary injunction.
Craig Vernon, an attorney for the Navajos, said he planned to file a motion to dismiss the church's complaint.
The church ran the program, also called the Lamanite Placement Program, from 1947 to the mid 1990s, according to the Navajo Court lawsuits. Lamanite comes from the Book of Mormon and refers to Indians who were a "cursed" race. The placement program run by the church was aimed at assimilating such children, the lawsuits say.