A federal judge has ruled that there’s likely no “religious freedom” right to violate the provisions of a federal program designed to help low-income families avoid hunger.
The ruling came in an ongoing case concerning a group of polygamous Mormons who live on the Utah-Arizona border. Many people who reside in the towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., are members of a sect run by Warren Jeffs, a fundamentalist Mormon who’s currently in prison in Texas.
The main Mormon church, based in Salt Lake City and formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, disavowed polygamy in the late 19th century. But small bands of renegade Mormons, most of whom live in rural areas of Utah and other Western states, continue the practice. Among them is Jeffs’ group, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS).
Members of the FLDS tend to have large families they have trouble supporting. They often apply for aid under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal anti-poverty effort known informally as “food stamps.”
Members of Jeffs’ church were using SNAP aid to buy food they then diverted to a central warehouse. There it was redistributed, often ending up in the hands of people who didn’t qualify for SNAP. Church leaders are also accused of selling some of the food and using the proceeds to buy luxury goods; 11 of them are on trial.
Federal officials said the scam has hurt the people who live in the communities and who really need the aid. About half of SNAP assistance goes to feed children and the elderly; those people, officials charge, were losing out. In its case, the federal government noted that food insecurity has been an issue for some children in the community.
In court, FLDS members cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 federal law designed to protect minority religious expression, and said they had a right to follow Jeffs’ directives about how the food was to be stored and distributed.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart was skeptical of the claim. In November, he issued a ruling denying FLDS members’ request to dismiss the case against the 11 church members, writing, “There is no evidence that the SNAP statutes and regulations were enacted or modified to target the practice of FLDS members of donating their possessions.”
Stewart also rejected a claim raised by Jeffs’ brother, Lyle, who is among the 11 charged but is currently on the lam, that he believed he would not be saved if he failed to follow Warren Jeffs’ commands. RFRA, Stewart noted, applies only to government actions.
Observed the judge, “Thus, the harm Defendants may suffer as a result of hypothetical disobedience to Warren Jeffs is irrelevant.”
The case will continue to proceed in court.