Utah high court: Religious community must compensate dissidents upon eviction

Monday, September 21, 1998

Saying the First Amendment does not bar the judiciary from resolving legal disputes between religious entities, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled that a group of dissenters cannot be evicted from a polygamist community without fair compensation.

The decision was prompted by a dispute among members of the Priesthood Work, a group that broke off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the late 19th century to continue the practice of plural marriage. The Priesthood amassed land along the Utah-Arizona border through a trust called the United Effort Plan. Priesthood members were encouraged to improve lots assigned to them and were led to believe that they could live there permanently.

In the late 1960s or early 1970s, a doctrinal dispute split the Priesthood, and a group led by Rulon T. Jeffs acquired control of the UEP and its properties. In the late ’80s, Jeffs asked 21 dissenters to leave the land. His action prompted a series of court battles that resulted in a 1996 state court ruling that UEP must compensate the dissenters for improvements they made to the land before being evicted.

Jeffs and UEP appealed the decision, arguing, in part, that allowing the dissenters to have continued interest in the land would violate the remaining UEP members’ free exercise of religion, thereby subverting the First Amendment as well as the Utah Constitution.

In a decision handed down earlier this month, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the religious-liberty rights of UEP were not violated by the lower state court decision.

“Essentially, the UEP argues that balancing the equities between the UEP and its claimants is tantamount to judging the fairness of the UEP’s religious practices and is therefore prohibited,” Justice Michael Zimmerman wrote for the majority.

Zimmerman wrote that although the “First Amendment severely circumscribes the role that civil courts may play in resolving church property disputes, not every civil court decision as to property claimed by a religious organization jeopardizes values protected by the First Amendment. Civil courts do not inhibit free exercise of religion merely by opening their doors to disputes involving church property.”

Additionally, UEP argued that the state did not have a compelling interest in resolving its dispute with the dissenters. UEP argued that the state had no interest in requiring one church body to maintain religious dissenters on church lands or monitoring the fairness of a religious dispute.

Zimmerman, however, wrote that UEP misunderstood the state interest.

“We conclude that the state’s interest here revolves around the judicial system, not the specific results of the judicial action,” Zimmerman noted. “The state has a compelling interest in ensuring that all parties are able to resolve legal disputes before a neutral tribunal.”

The Utah Constitution provides that: “All courts shall be open, and every person, for any injury done to him in his person, property or reputation, shall have a remedy by due course of law.”

Zimmerman concluded that if the court were to accept “UEP’s claim that we should refuse to resolve the claimants’ case solely because of the assertion that Utah’s courts cannot resolve disputes between religious entities, that refusal would deny this fundamental right to the claimants.”

Such a refusal, Zimmerman said, might also violate the separation of church and state.