Gaming the food stamp program was the free exercise of religious faith, FLDS attorneys argued in court this week.
Members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church charged in a massive food stamp fraud and money laundering scheme are arguing a religious freedom right to "consecrate" their government benefits to their church.
The results of the hearing in federal court could make or break the government's case against the polygamous church and some of its top members. Federal prosecutors have charged 11 FLDS members, accusing them of ordering faithful members to hand over food stamps to the storehouse, to do with as they wished. The U.S. Attorney's Office has claimed the scheme exceeds $12 million in taxpayer money, and some of it went to purchase luxury cars or was spending cash for leaders.
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The "Law of Consecration" stems from early Mormon teachings about united orders, where people give what they have to the church and it is doled out according to needs. A retired Mormon history professor testified on Tuesday that what the FLDS Church preaches is no different than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught in the 19th century.
But, the United Order was only recently implemented in the FLDS, purportedly ordered by Warren Jeffs from his prison cell.
The new social structure came about, as so many things do in the FLDS, when prophet Warren Jeffs had a revelation. This one came on December 12, 2011, about four months after he started serving the life sentence in Texas.
He told followers that God ordered him to create a United Order of members most worthy of heaven. And, before the month was up, his brother Lyle was lining up members at the old elementary school and quizzing them about their lives and faith to determine who was, indeed, worthy. They were instructed to hand over everything they owned and told the church would provide for their earthly needs.
The prophet -- and there is little doubt Warren Jeffs is still the FLDS prophet -- chooses who will be included in the United Order. His brothers, Lyle and Seth, serve as "bishops" and carry out the prophet's wishes at FLDS compounds along the Utah-Arizona border and in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The United Order was also abolished in the wake of these charges and the disappearance of the man who oversaw the selection process, Lyle Jeffs.
The documents indicate that Warren Jeffs has named a new bishop of Short Creek, replacing one brother, Lyle, with another, Nephi. The prophet also has abolished his sect's elite United Order, which was established under Lyle. The prophet has placed his followers on "restoral status," meaning they must renew their commitment to the FLDS. "My church order are out of order," Jeffs wrote in his distinctive block printing in a June 3 letter to his flock. He added that the "bishop's assistant," Ben Johnson, "is of no priesthood and needs go far away on repenting labor" and is barred from communicating with other members.
That brief chronology would appear to undercut the argument that this practice is integral to the practice of their faith – that, in fact, enacting such edicts is capricious, reactive, and serves the sole purpose of consolidating Warren Jeffs's dwindling power. The establishment of the United Order served to make the FLDS more hierarchical than ever, to have disenfranchised much of the FLDS, and to have torn families apart. (See the Vice video at the top of the page.)
It only gets stranger from there.
From prison, Jeffs is further dividing the town by building a cell of hardened zealots that he has christened the United Order, essentially an elite group within the faith. All over town, Wyler points out the homes of United Order members as we drive. They're easy to spot: an olive wreath above the Zion sign, and more often than not, a bunkhouse or a cargo container in the yard.
"What's that for?" I ask Wyler.
He says that if you're married to a United Order bride, you can't sleep under the same roof. "So the men get put outside," he adds. Jeffs has made all marriages null and void, explaining to the women of Short Creek that they are property of the priesthood. Even sleeping with your spouse is now considered adultery.
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Like other people I talk to in Short Creek, [Ben] Thomas is especially concerned about the rise of something called the seed bearers – perhaps the most disturbing of commands from the jailed FLDS prophet. According to former members who still have family inside, Jeffs has decreed that only men of a "royal bloodline" can reproduce, and only with women selected to the United Order. According to rumors, these men (there are said to be 15) are the seed bearers. To have a child, women must eat a special detox diet and apply to Jeffs in prison. Husbands are made to watch these breeding sessions, in which seed bearers wear a hood, and a sheet is placed between the man and woman during intercourse to keep their identities secret. Any children born from these unions are put into hiding, likely at the FLDS network of secret compounds scattered throughout the West. They then become property of the church, with no knowledge of the identity of their parents. Several former members tell me they think Jeffs is trying to create a master race, loyal only to him.
This United Order, far from being the communal system envisioned by early Mormons to combat hunger and poverty in communities, left many FLDS members begging for scraps, while a very small, select group dined on seafood and drove expensive vehicles from diverted funds.
Prosecutors wrote in court filings that church leadership ordered followers to make purchases with their food stamp cards, then turn over the goods to the church.
In another segment of the alleged scheme, food stamps were cashed at FLDS-owned businesses, no goods were turned over to the purchasers and the money was handed over to church-owned companies or used to pay for capital expenses, such as vehicles.
U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart has yet to render a decision on whether or not the government's case burdens the religious faith of FLDS members. Meanwhile, key defendant Lyle Jeffs is still MIA. It is unclear whether he is on a "repentance mission" at the behest of his brother, the prophet, or whether he has been taken up to heaven ahead of him.
In a filing about whether to continue the food stamp fraud trial for 11 members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, Jeffs’ defense attorney said she can’t reach him to ask his input, and then slyly offered some alternative ideas to explain his fugitive status.
“As this Court is well aware, Mr. Jeffs is currently not available to inform his counsel whether or not he agrees to the Continuance. Whether his absence is based on absconding, as oft alleged by the Government in their filings, or whether he was taken and secreted against his will, or whether he experienced the miracle of rapture is unknown to counsel,” Kathryn Nester wrote. “However, his absence prevents counsel from obtaining his approval and thus further prevents counsel from filing a joinder with the Motion to Continue Current Trial Date in compliance with the local rules.”
As state and federal authorities seek to loosen the incarcerated Warren Jeffs's stranglehold on both followers and apostates – restoring their property rights, cracking down on child labor, allowing women and children to reclaim their bodily autonomy – one of their biggest legal hurdles comes courtesy of Hobby Lobby. Once again, religious freedom as the right to control other people.