This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Seth Jeffs, brother of the imprisoned leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, came closest last week to winning a religious freedom argument.
Closest, that is, among 11 FLDS defendants charged with conspiracy in what prosecutors have called a scheme to defraud the federal food stamp program by taking benefits from sect members and giving the groceries to the bishop to distribute as he saw fit. Jeffs was the only defendant who actually received benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And so, federal Judge Ted Stewart ruled, those other defendants couldn't claim the program's rules burdened their practice of consecrating their belongings if they never belonged to SNAP in the first place.
As for Jeffs, Stewart focused on a section of that law saying the government may burden a person's exercise of religion if that burden "is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest."
The defense never disputed that the government has an interest in helping poor households purchase food, Stewart wrote. There is evidence that food purchased by SNAP recipients from the FLDS was not being eaten by those recipients, but rather distributed across the community even if other households didn't need it.
Therefore, Stewart wrote, the statutes and regulations governing SNAP are "rationally related to a legitimate government interest."
But Jeffs' attorney, Jay Winward, thinks Stewart misunderstood his client's argument. On Friday, Winward asked Stewart to reconsider his ruling and to dismiss the indictment against Jeffs.
Winward's motion explains that Jeffs is not requesting the ability to make wholesale donations of his SNAP benefits to the church to be consumed by anybody approved by the bishop, as Stewart's ruling described.
What Jeffs is proposing, Winward wrote, is the ability to donate food from his SNAP benefits and to receive an equal portion of food in return. Such an arrangement would allow Jeffs to live what the FLDS call the law of consecration.
Jeffs would be willing to provide SNAP administrators with an accounting of his donations and what he received in return, Winward wrote, as well as to provide medical records showing no one in his household is malnourished.
"Indeed, these proposed less restrictive means could apply to all SNAP recipients who donate food, whether to a school bake sale, church potluck or community food bank," Winward wrote. "It would simply require a recipient to account for donated food and require them to ensure receipt of equal amount of food in return."
Stewart will probably rule quickly. Lawyers for Jeffs' older brother and co-defendant, Lyle Jeffs, filed their own reconsideration motion last week. Stewart replied with a ruling the next day that consisted of one page, and said, in so many words, no.