Wednesday, November 16, 2016

RFRA Does Not Protect FLDS Members' Food Stamp Fraud

As previously reported, in February the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Utah announced indictments against eleven leaders and members of the polygamous FLDS Church charging them with conspiracy to commit food stamp fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.  Under FLDS doctrine known as the Law of Consecration, faithful members who were food stamp recipients were required to donate their benefits to the FLDS church through a clearinghouse known as the Bishop’s Storehouse. Food and household items were then redistributed to all in the community, whether or not they were food-stamp eligible. Now, in United States v. Jeffs, (D UT, Nov. 15, 2016), a Utah federal district court rejected the argument that this practice is protected by RFRA and the 1st Amendment.

The court held that one of the defendants, FLDS leader Lyle Jeffs, did not have a sincerely held belief in the Law of Consecration; however other defendants did. Only one of those defendants-- the one who was actually eligible to receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits-- though showed a "substantial burden" on his religious beliefs. The court went on, however, to find that the government has shown a compelling interest in limiting SNAP benefits to the purchase of food to be used by the eligible recipient's household, and that the SNAP statutes and regulations are the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.  The court also rejected defendants' 1st Amendment claims. Fox 13 reports on the decision.