Judge says Hobby Lobby ruling allows Mormon cult member to avoid talking to feds
'Judge Giving Verdict' [Shutterstock]

A federal judge cited the Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby birth control case in ruling that a member of a polygamist Mormon splinter group does not have to answer questions from the Department of Labor because of his religious beliefs, the Salt Lake City Tribune reported.

U.S. District Judge David Sam ruled that Vergel Steed does not have to respond to a subpoena concerning his work in 2012 at a pecan ranch believed to be run by members or companies affiliated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS).

Sam wrote in his ruling that Labor officials "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."

As Think Progress noted, the high court's ruling in Hobby Lobby undermined a provision in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (PDF) requiring individuals to demonstrate a "substantial burden" upon their religious practices before they could ask to be exempt from laws "neutral" toward religion.

Authorities suspect that unpaid labor and children were used at the ranch to collect the nut harvest that year. Steed, who works at the church's private school, said in a deposition this past January that he did not know about the harvest, but when asked if he was employed by the church, he said that was a "religious question" he should not answer.

The department has also deposed Lyle Jeffs, brother of FLDS founder and "prophet" Warren Jeffs, who is currently in prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting two underage girls. Officials possess a voicemail message, allegedly left by Lyle Jeffs, instructing the school to close for a week and direct members to work at the ranch in Hurricane, Utah.

Sam's ruling reverses a magistrate judge's order that Steed answer the department's questions, saying the magistrate judge "made no credibility findings" regarding Steed's faith.

"The Court concludes that Mr. Steed's beliefs, as expressed by him, are sincerely held and religious in nature," Sam wrote. "He has so stated under oath. There is no evidence of record that he does not sincerely hold his expressed religious beliefs."

Steed had stated that his vows to the church prevent him from discussing "matters related to [its] internal affairs."

The Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby decision earlier this year that the U.S. government could not force companies to follow the reproductive health guidelines established in the Affordable Care Act if their owners objected for religious reasons.