The Apostolic United Brethren (AUB) is a polygamist community consisting of approximately 7,500 members who consider themselves “Latter Day Saints” and whose members are primarily scattered in towns in the Salt Lake and Utah valleys in Utah. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, however, has disavowed any connection with the AUB. In 2009, the AUB described its beliefs for the Utah Attorney General’s “Polygamy Primer,” a booklet providing “basic information about various polygamous communities so that service providers and others can be better prepared to help families in and from those communities.” The AUB believes in plural marriage between consenting adults over the age of 18: “We do not encourage or permit ‘child bride’ marriages or arranged marriages. Instead, it is a fundamental principle of our faith that it is the sacred privilege of all, male and female, when they are adequately mature, to choose whom they will marry. Forced, arranged, or assigned marriages are not a part of our belief or practice.” (To read the “Polygamist Primer,” click here).
An AUB community in Bluffdale, Utah has applied for a zoning change to alter the property’s agricultural use to single-family residential use on approximately 26 acres of land to construct 8 homes for retirees. The AUB currently has 2 homes and a church on the property. The AUB also seeks to cluster the homes close together so the residents can watch out for each other. The City Council would have to approve the clustering of the homes, and, if approved, the AUB would have to leave an open acre on its property for each home in the cluster, resulting in up to 8 acres of open space based on the AUB’s proposal. One AUB member stated that the retirement homes are needed because the AUB has a lot of elderly women who have lost a husband.
The Bluffdale Planning Commission voted to table its consideration of the zoning change after a motion to approve the AUB’s proposal reached a 2-2 stalemate. Reportedly, the commissioners were not concerned about polygamy, but instead had reservations about a narrow road that serves as the sole means of access to the property. The AUB noted that 200 to 300 cars travel along the road each Sunday to attend church services. One member of the commission requested that the AUB conduct a traffic study funded by the AUB and that city staff examine whether the road could be widened.
However, if the AUB’s proposal is denied, could it bring a claim under RLUIPA, assuming the AUB could demonstrate that providing the retirement housing was within the four corners of its religious exercise? Does it matter that polygamy is illegal throughout the country? There is a distinction between holding a certain belief and acting on that belief. That is, holding certain beliefs is not a crime in and of itself. The courts are generally unwilling to question a religious institution’s beliefs. In fact, the United States Supreme Court has observed that “while a court can arbiter the sincerity of an individual’s religious beliefs, courts should not inquire into the truth or falsity of stated religious beliefs.” International Church of the Foursquare Gospel v. City of San Leandro, 673 F.3d 1059, 1069 (9th Cir. 2011) (citing United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78, 86-87 (1944)).
We’ll keep an eye on this situation in the “Beehive State” as it unfolds.