FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) _ The judge in the racketeering trial of black separatist leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh pleaded with jurors Saturday to set aside racial and religious differences as they began deliberating.

''You must be objective whatever your race, whatever your faith, whatever your background,'' said U.S. District Judge Norman Roettger, noting the panel has nine white and three blacks and the defendants are all black.

Yahweh, who founded the Nation of Yahweh in 1979 and preached he was the son of God, is accused with 15 followers of 14 murders, two attempted murders and a firebombing that destroyed four buildings.

Yahweh and 10 followers face up to 40 years in prison if convicted of racketeering and conspiracy. Five others face only a conspiracy charge carrying a maximum 20-year term.

Roettger handed the case to the juror Saturday and ordered them sequestered over the Memorial Day weekend. He refused to replace three jurors who complained of outside commitments starting Wednesday.

But Roettger urged jurors in the 5-month-old trial not to ''rush to judgment'' and to be cautious about witnesses who struck plea bargains or admitted to lying under oath in the past.

Two hours into the deliberations, defense attorneys were buoyed by a note to the judge.

''The jury needs some clarification: if we (hypothetical) were to find reasonable doubt on Count 1 of the indictment, do we have to consider Count 2?'' said the note from forewoman Elisa Miller.

The first count charges conspiracy, and the second count is racketeering.

The judge sent back a note telling jurors to consider each count separately.

Prosecutors had no comment, but defense attorney Dennis Kainen said, ''I think it's a real good sign.''

The jurors deliberated six hours before retiring Saturday. Roettger ordered them to return Sunday.

Prosecutors said Yahweh demanded ears as trophies when his ''Death Angels'' killed ''white devils,'' most of whom were homeless men. They said he ordered the firebombing of a block in nearby Delray Beach after followers were roughed up while seeking donations.

The government's key witness, Robert Rozier, was thrown out of the sect by Yahweh. He's now serving a 22-year prison sentence in four murders. He confessed on the stand to three more killings.

Yahweh's defense attorney, Alcee Hastings, claimed the trial was a government vendetta against a legitimate religious group that was a model of economic success for the urban underclass.

Prosecutor Richard Scruggs charged that a group of criminals led by Yahweh used the sect as a screen for violence and that his thunderous sermons about Old Testament vengeance against non-believers amounted to orders to kill.

During the trial, jurors heard testimony about life inside the secretive sect's Temple of Love in Miami. Yahweh followers, recognizable by their white robes and turbans, became a potent political force, offering city leaders votes and business deals.

At its height, the sect attracted thousands of followers in 22 states and built an $8 million empire of hotels, warehouses and neighborhood stores.