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A polygamous sect lost a key battle Friday in a quest to reclaim control of its historic property trust from the state.
The Utah Supreme Court unanimously ruled members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints waited too long to challenge the court takeover and restructuring of the United Effort Plan Trust.
The sect offered no explanation for its nearly three-year delay in raising legal objections, the high court said, and its silence "gave the district court every reason to believe that the  reformation had occurred without opposition."
The court said the delay barred all but one claim in the sect's petition: that a proposed property distribution includes an unconstitutional religious test.
The justices didn't rule on that hypothetical claim, saying the sect had not yet cited any instance where "an active FLDS member received a lesser delegation of property because of his or her religious beliefs."
The Utah Attorney General's Office said in court filings the FLDS ignored numerous opportunities to participate in revising the trust after it was taken over in 2005.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he hopes the high court's decision will prompt FLDS members to stop fighting in court, recognize the authority of trust manager Bruce R. Wisan and make requests for property deeds.
"All this ongoing litigation is not acceptable," Shurtleff said. "We need to get it out of the courts and resolve it."
A similar lawsuit by the FLDS is pending in U.S. District Court. But unless the federal court rules differently, the FLDS "are stuck with this trust," he said. "They need to work with the special fiduciary, and I would call on the fiduciary to work with the FLDS."
"We really need FLDS members on the advisory board," Shurtleff added. "I think the court will appoint them, we just need the FLDS to gives us some names. We need them to come back and say, 'Let's play.' "
Shurtleff said the present situation is "just not working," noting allegations of criminal trespass pending against Wisan in Arizona and a threat of violence made by a former trust advisory board member earlier this year.
"Last year we spent 30 hours behind closed doors and got close to settling it," he said. "I'd like to do that again."
In the petition filed last October, some 10,000 FLDS members claimed their constitutional rights had been violated when 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg eliminated the trust's religious purpose and instituted a secular agenda hostile to the faith.
The sect asked the court to stop sale of trust property, remove Wisan and reverse Lindberg's revisions to the trust.
FLDS attorney Rod Parker said the sect was weighing an appeal of the decision, which he described as not "all bad."
"They do seem to implicitly recognize there are limits on the way the reformed trust can be administered," said Parker. "It's not going to be business as usual. The trust will be expected to respect our property and other legal rights."
In addition to pursuing the pending federal appeal, the sect could petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a hearing. The FLDS church's corporate entity also is currently trying to join the district court case.
Parker said the FLDS' delay happened because the community was in a "state of chaos" as the trust was being rewritten. It was under pressure from various lawsuits, investigations and, months earlier, the arrest of ecclesiastical leader Warren S. Jeffs.
He called on Shurtleff to "re-engage and impose supervision and direction" on Wisan to protect the trust and FLDS' members rights.
FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said the sect would continue to seek "remedies for the ongoing violations of people's civil rights."
Fundamentalist Mormons who settled the area that is now Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., set up the UEP Trust in 1942 as a communal United Order. The trust holds virtually all property in the twin towns and has holdings in Bountiful, British Columbia, too. Most residents in the three communities are FLDS.
Shurtleff sought the trust's takeover after its assets were targeted in civil lawsuits filed by former FLDS members. The state also alleged FLDS trustees were mismanaging the trust.
In its court filings, the state said sect members did not have standing to sue and that their petition was a "collateral attack" on Lindberg and Wisan, whoose authority they have resisted.
The fiduciary, the state said, wants to subdivide the trust lands to aid his ability to manage, collect property taxes and sell property to pay expenses, including millions owed to his firm and his attorneys.
But FLDS members oppose that plan, and during the past year disputes over land, homes and other trust property have escalated.
In its petition, the FLDS said Lindberg's reformation of the trust set up a secular "overlord of an entire religious community." Once Lindberg eliminated its religious underpinnings, the trust should have been terminated and its holdings distributed to the FLDS church's corporate entity as called for in the trust's bylaws.
But Lindberg said the trust could not default to the church because it sanctioned illegal practices such as polygamy, bigamy and sexual activity between adults and minors.
The FLDS argued Lindberg's orders impinged on their ability to live a version of communalism described in Mormon scripture that calls for participants to consecrate property, services, time and talents to build a religious kingdom.
But the Utah Supreme Court said the FLDS' failure to seek relief in a timely manner demonstrated a "lack of diligence" and risked injuring others who relied on the court's decisions. Lawsuits have been settled, trust beneficiaries have made irreversible decisions and the fiduciary has entered irrevocable transactions and obligations, wrote Associate Chief Justice Matthew Durrant in the court's 19-page ruling.
The sect had not cited any instance where "an active FLDS member received a lesser delegation of property because of his or her religious beliefs," so claims of constitutional rights violations are merely hypothetical, the opinion said.
Salt Lake Attorney Roger Hoole, who represented the young men who first sued the trust, issued a statement Friday on behalf of his clients "welcoming" the decision.
Contrary to predictions by Jeffs, the "FLDS people have not had their homes taken from them," the statement said. "Court intervention has made the FLDS (and all those who live on trust lands) more secure in their homes than they ever have been."
Several former FLDS members who serve on the UEP Trust advisory board said they hope the decision leads to cooperation between the fiduciary and the sect.
"I would hope and pray we can all work together and that something beneficial would come out of it," said Margaret Cooke. "I would like to be able to work with FLDS and be their friend and partner in the community."
Advisory member Katie Cox called the ruling a "relief."
"There has been a lot of tension in the community this past summer and I hope that we can establish a greater degree of peace here and I think that can only happen by people upholding the law police officers and city officials and also residents having respect for the law," Cox said.
Tribune reporter Stephen Hunt contributed to this story.
Reactions to the court ruling
Salt Lake lawyer Roger Hoole, whose clients triggered the state takeover of the FLDS' United Effort Plan Trust, issued a statement Friday "welcoming" the Utah Supreme Court decision.
Contrary to predictions by Warren Jeffs, the "FLDS people have not had their homes taken from them," the statement said. "Court intervention has made the FLDS (and all those who live on trust lands) more secure in their homes than they ever have been."
Several former FLDS members who serve on the UEP Trust advisory board said they hope the decision leads to cooperation between trust fiduciary Bruce Wisan and the sect.
"There has been a lot of tension in the community this past summer and I hope that we can establish a greater degree of peace here and I think that can only happen by people upholding the law police officers and city officials and also residents having respect for the law," said board member Katie Cox.