Reagan-Appointed Judge Cites Hobby Lobby Ruling to Decide Polygamist Sect Doesn’t Have to Testify about Child Labor Violations

Thursday, September 18, 2014
Judge David Sam (photo: Marie Mischel, Intermountain Catholic)

When the U.S. Supreme Court elevated the importance of religious freedom in the Hobby Lobby case, it made it possible for a member of a fringe religious sect to avoid helping the federal government investigate child labor allegations.


Citing the precedence established in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which allows businesses to cite religious objections in not providing birth control to workers through company health insurance plans, U.S. District Judge David Sam in Utah has ruled that a member of a polygamist group can cite religious freedom as a reason to not give testimony in a criminal probe.


Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), an offshoot of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been in trouble with law enforcement for years. He’s now serving a life sentence in prison for sexually assaulting two under-age girls he had taken as wives.

Now his church is the focus of a federal labor investigation. Jeffs was accused in a CNN report of ordering that children be taken out of school to help pick pecans at a private orchard. The government wanted FLDS member Vergel Steed, who has worked at the school, to testify about this practice.


That effort hit a roadblock when Sam, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan, ruled Steed could refuse to talk about FLDS business based on his religious oath to not discuss internal matters.


“Before Hobby Lobby, it’s unlikely that Steed’s claim would prevail. Although a federal law offers fairly robust protections for religious liberty, this law only applies when the federal government ‘substantially burden[s] a person’s exercise of religion,’” Ian Millhiser wrote for ThinkProgress.


Sam ruled “Petitioner has failed to show that forcing Mr. Steed to answer the questions offensive to his sincerely held religious beliefs is the least restrictive means to advance any compelling interest it may have,” and suggested other avenues for the government to pursue.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Judge: Hobby Lobby Decision Means Polygamous Sect Member Can Refuse To Testify In Child Labor Case (by Ian Millhiser, ThinkProgress)

FLDS Cites ‘Hobby Lobby’ Case to Fight Subpoena on Child Labor (by Nate Carlisle, Salt Lake Tribune)

Arizona Asks Federal Judge to Disband Police Department that Places Church Directives over Law (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)


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