FLDS members will argue religious right to hand over food stamps in fraud case

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SALT LAKE CITY — In a new court filing, lawyers for Fundamentalist LDS Church bishop Lyle Jeffs and others charged in a massive welfare fraud scheme indicate they will push forward with claims of a religious right to hand over food stamps to the polygamous church.

Defense lawyers said they just need more time to articulate their arguments, pointing out there are 42 terabytes of data the federal government claims it has as evidence against the 11 FLDS members charged in the food stamp fraud case. So far, the defense said it has received maybe 10 percent of the overall discovery materials it is entitled to.

The 11 defendants charged in the FLDS food stamp fraud case.

The 11 defendants charged in the FLDS food stamp fraud case.

“The questions of whether or not the defense should be entitled to present a constitutional challenge to the statutes and regulations cited by the government or whether facts or arguments relating to the religious practices of the defendants will be relevant at trial in this matter cannot be considered in a vacuum. Such questions are intrinsically connected to the facts of the case, which have yet to be fully disclosed by the government or explored by the defense,” Jeffs’ defense attorney Kathryn Nester wrote in a motion obtained by FOX 13.

Federal prosecutors charged 11 people, including FLDS leaders Lyle Jeffs and Seth Jeffs (brothers to imprisoned polygamist leader Warren Jeffs). They are accused of ordering FLDS members on Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to hand over their benefits to church leaders to do with as they wished. Prosecutors have claimed the scheme bilked taxpayers out of more than $12 million.

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The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Utah has filed a motion with a federal judge, seeking to block the FLDS defendants from claiming a “religious right” to hand over their SNAP benefits. They argue that federal laws dictate SNAP benefits are for household use only, and cannot be given to the FLDS Church.

“The motivation for the donations, the religious teachings of the community, the information the community members received from the government regarding their benefits, the history and practice of this community and other similarly situated communities, the relationships with the vendors – all these facts and more will impact whether and to what extent the defendants seek to raise the defense the government is asking the Court to preclude. Until the discovery process is complete, the defendants simply cannot respond to the Motion in Limine in a way that will be helpful to the Court,” Nester wrote.

Lawyers for the other 10 defendants filed court papers signing on to Nester’s argument.

Read the filing by Lyle Jeffs’ defense attorney here: