Fugitive FLDS leader Lyle Jeffs wants charges dismissed, claims religious right on food stamps

SALT LAKE CITY -- Fugitive polygamist leader Lyle Jeffs has filed a motion to dismiss the federal grand jury indictment leveled against him, arguing a religious right to consecrate food stamps to the Fundamentalist LDS Church.

In a motion filed Tuesday and obtained by FOX 13, the polygamist leader's defense attorney asked a judge to dismiss the indictment on food stamp fraud and money laundering charges.  Jeffs is among 11 people accused of ordering FLDS members to turn over food stamp benefits to church leaders to do with as they wished. State officials have said Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are intended only for use by those they're given to. Federal prosecutors allege the scheme exceeds $12 million in taxpayer dollars.

Jeffs absconded from home confinement last month after a judge ordered him released pending trial. The FBI told FOX 13 in a report Monday that it believes the FLDS leader used a substance like olive oil to slip out of his GPS monitoring device without triggering alarms. He is a wanted fugitive considered "armed and dangerous."

FINAL Wanted Lyle Jeffs

In the filing, Jeffs' defense attorney Kathryn Nester argues that Jeffs and other FLDS members have a right under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to consecrate their property to the church.

"Similar to the Amish parents ... who refused to compel their children to attend public high school, sincerely believing that high school attendance was contrary to the Amish religion and way of life and that they would endanger their own salvation and that of their children if they complied with the law, FLDS members believe a failure to donate their SNAP benefits (which is considered property), would be contrary to the FLDS religion and way of life that would endanger their own salvation," she wrote.

The FLDS live under the early Mormon concept of a "united order," where members give their property and earnings to to the church which doles it out according to "wants and needs." The FLDS Church is a breakaway sect from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which no longer practices polygamy, or administers a united order.

Still, Nester pointed to Mormon faith founder Joseph Smith as the inspiration for the united order the FLDS live under.

FLDS bishop Lyle Jeffs leaves federal court on June 9 after being released from jail. (Image by Mike Reidel, FOX 13 News)

FLDS bishop Lyle Jeffs leaves federal court on June 9 after being released from jail. (Image by Mike Reidel, FOX 13 News)

"Mr. Jeffs, as Bishop of the FLDS Church, believing in and receiving guidance from the Prophet Warren Jeffs, instructed his followers on these tenets. Mr. Jeffs engaged in daily discussion with the faithful FLDS members on the ways and means the United Order and the Law of Consecration could be practically implemented," she wrote.

Warren Jeffs, the leader of the FLDS Church, is serving life in a Texas prison for child sex assault related to underage "marriages." He is still believed to be in command of the 10,000 member polygamous sect based on the Utah-Arizona border, but his brother, Lyle Jeffs, is believed to run the day-to-day operations as bishop.

Nester said the government may not like the FLDS Church, but prosecuting them for food stamp fraud creates a "substantial burden" on Jeffs' First Amendment right to religious freedom.

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

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

"In one scenario, FLDS members eat and transgress a basic tenet of their belief. In the other scenario, FLDS members abide by their religious convictions and must forego critically needed food supplements to which they are entitled to under the law," Nester wrote.

"Moreover, forbidding Mr. Jeffs from proselytizing to his FLDS brethren to donate all property, including their SNAP benefits to the Community Storehouse, is commanding him to ignore God. It is asking Mr. Jeffs to conduct himself contrary to his sincerely held religious belief, and in a manner that is in direct conflict with the very foundations of United Order and the Law of Consecration, principles which the FLDS faith is based on."

The U.S. Attorney's Office will respond to the motion before a judge decides whether to dismiss the indictment. The FBI said it continues to search for Jeffs and anyone with information is urged to call 801-579-1400.

Read the motion to dismiss here: