Polygamous Mormons Lose Round In Food Stamp Fraud Case

In all of the reaction over the election, it’s easy to overlook other stories of interest, some of which are actually good news.

Consider this one: A federal judge has ruled that there’s likely no “religious freedom” right to defraud a federal program designed to help low-income families avoid hunger.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Yet people are making some very strange arguments about religious freedom these days, so it’s always good to see a court slap one down.

This case centers on 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. (These people are a splinter group of the main LDS church, which disavowed polygamy in the 19th century.)

Jeffs’ followers in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) tend to have large families that they can’t support. Thus, they apply for aid under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) – also known as “food stamps.”

Members of Jeffs’ church were using SNAP aid to buy food that 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.

This scam hurt people. About half of SNAP aid goes to feed children and the elderly, and those folks were losing out. In its case, the federal government noted that food insecurity has been an issue for some children in the community.

Colorado City, Ariz., is largely populated by fundamentalist Mormons, some of whom are accused of cheating a government program.

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 distributed.

U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart didn’t buy it. Last week Stewart denied a 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 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.”

At Americans United, we’ve long held that religious freedom is an important principle that deserves strong protection. That's why our Legal Department files briefs in many religious freedom cases. But it must never become an excuse to defraud the government or deny others their rights. Both of these things were happening in southern Utah, and the judge was right to reject these frankly bizarre arguments.