Two remote, adjoining towns on the border of Arizona and Utah where the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is headquartered are being accused by the US federal government of using their police and municipal resources to bully and block non-church members from living in the towns.
The Short Creek region, made up of the towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, has been home to the FLDS church since the sect broke away from the mainstream Mormon church in order to continue practicing polygamy, which the main church outlawed in 1890. The towns are now home to about 7,500 people, according to census data, the majority of whom are members of the church.
In recent years, the towns have come under increased scrutiny by state and federal authorities due to the group's religious practices, particularly the marrying off of underage girls to older men in plural marriages. The church's self-proclaimed prophet leader, Warren Jeffs, was on the FBI's Most Wanted list for sexual assault crimes for his multiple marriages to underage girls until he was arrested in 2006. He is currently serving a life sentence in prison.
In a civil suit filed by the Department of Justice in 2012 and being tried starting this past week in federal court in Phoenix, Arizona, the two towns and their public utility companies are being forced to defend themselves against allegations that non-FLDS residents were denied water and electric services, access to parks and zoos, and the protection of police when it came to crimes allegedly committed by church members against those not affiliated with the church. The case cites the Fair Housing Act and claims the towns and utilities engaged in discrimination based on religion.
"They have coerced, intimidated, threatened, and interfered with the housing rights of non-FLDS members," the complaint alleges. "The Marshal's Office has inappropriately used its state-granted law enforcement authority to enforce the edicts of the FLDS, to the detriment of non-FLDS members."
The Justice Department's lead prosecutor, Jessica Clarke, said in her opening statement that for more than 20 years, the police in both towns acted under the direction of Jeffs, intimidating and interrogating members who had fallen out of favor with the spiritual leader, returning underage girls who had fled their "marriages," and hiding information on Jeffs from the FBI when he was on the lam nearly a decade ago, according to Phoenix public radio station KJZZ. The towns' defense attorneys argue that is no longer the case now that Jeffs is imprisoned.
In one instance outlined in the DOJ's complaint, the feds allege that after Jeffs issued an edict that there would be no more pet dogs in the town, the police officers went around to all the homes, rounded up the animals, and shot and killed them at a mass gravesite outside of town.
A former member of the FLDS church, Dowayne Barlow, testified Wednesday and said that the police force was "a network that spied on the people for the church leadership," according to the New York Times.
Marci Hamilton, a law professor and expert in church and state law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who has been following the case, said that legally, the case was a straightforward one about "corruption, about the single religious group taking over all political and city functions."
"It's something that's never been permitted under the US Constitution and I think it just got to the point it was so publicly well known the federal government just had to do something," she said.
Attorneys for the towns, however, argue that they are the subject of religious persecution by the federal government, are being punished for the sins of the church, and deserve religious freedom.
"Who is discriminating against who?" attorney Jeff Matura asked jurors in his opening statement Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.
Matura and Blake Hamilton, the lead attorneys representing the towns, did not respond to requests for comment.
"That's the go-to line for every religious group in the US right now if they don't like how the government is working," said Hamilton. "It's a constant cry of persecution and discrimination."
Hamilton said she expects the federal government will score an easy victory against the two towns, but that they will likely go back to operating the way they have been, ignoring any federal edicts that come their way.
"I think the hard part of this case is enforcement. Good people have tried to impose some law and order on these communities to protect the vulnerable and so far they have not been successful," she said. "I worry that even victory by the DOJ will result in only surface compliance."
What needs to happen, she said, is for federal law enforcement to go after the human rights violations that occur in the community, including the marrying off of underage girls to older men, but also issues of medical neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and abandonment that she alleges go on inside the sect.
"We are long past the time where we can excuse the behavior of parents in that community," she said. "Until law enforcement decides the children matter nothing will change."
The DOJ did not return requests for comment on the case. The trial is expected to last a month.
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