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KINGMAN -- A simple eviction trial in Mohave County has evolved into a battle over the scope of power a religious group can exert to control its members including their behavior, their relationships and even where they live.
The leaders of a fundamentalist Mormon polygamous sect could have kicked Milton Holm out of their church years ago because of a drinking problem and domestic turmoil.
Such behavior is not in "harmony" with church doctrine and is grounds to strip Holm of his "priesthood" status in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Losing one's FLDS religious standing can have devastating consequences far beyond the spiritual realm. Being tossed out of the FLDS also could have jeopardized Holm's right to stay on church-owned land where he had invested 25 years of his life, building and paying for a 5,000-square-foot home for his family.
But the FLDS stood by Holm for years during his drinking and family struggles. Holm had other assets the church highly valued -- his daughters.
Although Holm was monogamous in a culture where a man's power is equated by the number of wives in his home, he nevertheless was the head of a large family with more than a dozen children. Among the oldest children was a pretty, young teenage girl named Nicole.
On the eve of Nicole's 16th birthday in September 1999, Nicole was told by FLDS leader Warren Jeffs that she "belonged" to a man who was already married with 10 children -- 37-year-old Wynn Jessop. Plans for Nicole to marry Jessop in a non-civil, FLDS spiritual ceremony in January 2000 were set in motion.
Church leaders did not seek permission from Nicole's mother -- Milton Holm's wife, Lenore Holm -- until the day before the ceremony where her daughter would be "sealed" to Jessop as his second wife. Lenore Holm had sole custody of Nicole from a previous marriage.
Summoned to meet with church leaders on January 14, 2000, Lenore says she felt tremendous pressure to give her consent for her daughter's marriage, which she says she reluctantly gave.
"I was in there 45 minutes to an hour. A lot of the time they were just staring at me. I was crying," Lenore Holm says.
The next day, after discussions with her husband and a conversation with Nicole's father, who was strongly opposed to the marriage, Lenore called FLDS leaders and withdrew her consent for the marriage.
Lenore Holm's decision to challenge church leaders brought immediate and severe repercussions that are continuing to reverberate.
Ten minutes after she rescinded her permission, Warren Jeffs called her husband and delivered an edict.
"He told me I had lost my priesthood, that I allowed my wife to rule over me. I was no longer a member of the church and I was to move off the [church] property," Milton Holm testified last week in Mohave County Superior Court.
Soon after, the Holms received written notice to vacate the home they had spent years building, without compensation. The Holms refused, and a three-year legal struggle ensued, culminating last week with a one-day eviction trial before Mohave County Superior Court Judge James Chavez.
The trial provided a glimpse into the otherwise closed society of the FLDS church that demands strict obedience from its members. The court allowed wide-ranging testimony into normally cut-and-dried eviction cases. Tensions ran high, inside and outside the courtroom.
FLDS attorney Rodney Parker argued that Milton Holm was a "tenant-at-will" who occupied church-owned land through an entity called the United Effort Plan. Parker told the court that Holm was allowed to stay on the land at the pleasure of church leaders.
"This case involves a rather unique issue and that has to do with the ability of this church to essentially control its membership," Parker says. "The church says these people are no longer members . . . the land is reserved for the use of members."
Parker said for the court to "impose members on the church that the church doesn't acknowledge as members" would create "a very serious constitutional problem."
The Holms' attorney, George McKay, contended Milton Holm built his house on church land with the understanding that he and his family would be entitled to live in the house they had paid for despite being thrown out of the church. If the church does want the family to leave, McKay argued, they should be compensated.
The eviction, McKay says, was retribution because the family had refused to give consent for their daughter to enter into an illegal act.
"The eviction proceedings began within 10 minutes after turning down the marriage," he told the court.
The trial featured a rare public appearance by Leroy Steeds Jeffs, a high-ranking FLDS official who is a United Effort Plan trustee and certified public accountant. During cross-examination by McKay, Jeffs reluctantly testified that the FLDS is subject to the Arizona constitution and state laws. Article XX of the constitution prohibits polygamy; however, the state Legislature has never enacted a corresponding criminal statute.