Mormon Church disputes tribal jurisdiction in Navajo abuse case

The Navajo Nation District Court in Window Rock, Arizona. Photo from Navajo Nation Courts

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is refusing to submit to the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation.

Two Navajo siblings -- identified in court papers as "RJ" and "MM" -- sued the Mormon Church in tribal court in March. The complaint alleges they suffered sexual abuse while participating in a church-operated child welfare program in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But a declaration filed in federal court on Tuesday says decisions made by the Indian Student Placement Program occurred in Utah, not on the reservation. The church also says the tribe's court lacks jurisdiction over non-Indian entities.

"Here, Defendants RJ and MM have filed claims against these Plaintiffs in the Navajo Nation District Court seeking damages for alleged acts of child abuse occurring while they were living with nonmember host families in Utah cities and towns outside the Navajo reservation," a motion filed on Tuesday reads. "These claims far exceed the well-established jurisdictional limits of tribal courts. Simply put, because Doe Defendants’ claims involve nonmember activity outside the reservation, the Tribal Court has no jurisdiction."

The motion notes that the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision in Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a closely-watched tribal jurisdiction case that also involves alleged abuse by a non-Indian entity.

"Once decided, that case may resolve the jurisdictional issue here by holding that nonmembers are not subject to tribal jurisdiction, even for wrongs committed on tribal lands," church attorneys wrote in a footnote.

The church is facing a second lawsuit from another Navajo citizen, the Associated Press reported. The woman alleges she was abused in Utah between 1965 to 1972, the AP said.

Thousands of tribal youth took part in the Indian Student Placement Program between 1947 and 2000, when it was officially disbanded.

Get the Story:
LDS Church says Navajo Nation court lacks jurisdiction in abuse lawsuit (KSL 6/1)
Mormon Church hit with second lawsuit saying children abused (AP 5/31)
Lawsuit accuses Mormon church of failing to protect Navajos (AP 3/24)

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