SALT LAKE CITY – Two brothers of polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs can cite their religion in refusing to answer some questions about suspected child labour violations on a Utah pecan farm, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
But the men must answer other queries about a harvest that federal authorities say was directed by the secretive sect and involved up to 1,400 child workers, U.S. District Judge David Sam said.
Nephi and Lyle Jeffs, considered high-ranking sect members, testified in a Salt Lake City courtroom that the doctrine of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, bars them from talking about its dealings.
“I feel like I would be breaking confidences if I discuss the workings of the church,” Nephi Jeffs said.
After their testimony, Sam decided the brothers’ religious beliefs were sincere and said they can avoid questions on the church’s inner workings.
But the judge said Nephi and Lyle Jeffs must answer queries about a 2012 pecan harvest along the Utah-Arizona border. Prosecutors say during that harvest, church leaders left phone messages telling members’ children to take days off school and work without pay.
The ruling was similar to Sam’s September decision allowing another Jeffs follower to avoid testifying about the sect’s dealings. That ruling cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s finding that arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby could be exempt on religious grounds from a federal requirement to cover employees’ birth control.
Federal labour lawyers want the brothers to answer questions about working conditions on the farm, as well as FLDS structure and leadership.
The two men appeared in court Wednesday in similar dark suits and ties, both wearing wire-rimmed glasses. They answered questions calmly, but consistently said their beliefs preclude them from giving leaders’ names, group records or details about church business.
Defence attorney Jim Bradshaw said the federal investigation aims to go beyond the pecan farm and into other FLDS activities.
“In some ways, it is harassment,” Bradshaw said. “It’s a process that would not be tolerated for any mainstream religion.”
Federal lawyers say in court documents the company that manages the farm, Paragon Contractors, is affiliated with the sect and was investigated for child labour violations in construction work seven years ago. Government attorneys declined to comment Wednesday.
The Jeffs brothers testified they knew of no criminal activities the church might be involved in. Bradshaw said the men could take the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination on some child labour investigation questions.
Warren Jeffs is serving a life prison sentence in Texas after being convicted in 2011 of sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides. Members of his sect, a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.
Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, the mainstream church and its 15 million members worldwide abandoned the practice more than century ago.