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Alleged Polygamist Fraudsters Argue For Religious Right To Donate Food Stamps

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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Thomas Phippen Associate Editor
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Defense attorneys for the leaders of a Mormon polygamist sect on trial for food stamp fraud want the chance to argue that welfare benefits count as religious donations.

The jury should not consider the religious liberty issue, according to federal prosecutors in court briefs filed Wednesday in federal court. Prosecutors called on Judge Ted Stewart to ban the First Amendment defense during trial in their filings, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The case against 11 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) are charged with two counts of conspiracy for both taking food stamps from congregants and converting the welfare benefits into cash at stores owned by FLDS members.

Defense attorneys argued FLDS members had a First Amendment right to donate either the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits or the food purchased with the benefits to the church.

The government prosecutors quoted federal law regulating food stamps to argue that the benefits are only to be used in stores, and may only be used by the household that receives them. “Benefits issued to eligible households shall be used by them only to purchase food from retail food stores,” and “benefits may be used only by the household, or other persons the household selects, to purchase eligible food for the household,” the law states.

A former member of the FLDS said the church leaders were concerned about the legality of donating food stamps from the start, according to an affidavit included in the prosecutions filings. Dowayne Barlow said he remembered former FLDS Bishop Lyle Jeffs telling members who received the food stamps only to shop at FLDS stores to avoid detection, according to the affidavit.

Jeffs, one of the 11 defendants in the case, escaped federal custody in June by rubbing olive oil on his foot and slipping out of his ankle monitor. His whereabouts are still unknown. (RELATED: Polygamous Man Leaves 7 Wives And Dozens Of Kids To Flee The Feds)

The 11 men were first arrested in February for defrauding the government of more than $12 million from the SNAP program. Three were recently rearrested for meeting together, a violation of the conditions of their release. Their trial is scheduled for Oct. 3 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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