After a dramatic seven-week trial, a federal jury in Phoenix has found the local governments of two polygamous towns, straddling the Utah-Arizona borderline, guilty of disobeying federal laws. The towns violated the constitutional rights of some of its citizens by denying them water, police services and housing permits, all because of their religion.
Colorado City in Arizona and Hildale in Utah are adjacent and predominantly populated by the members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — a radical derivative of Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy over a century ago.
The followers of the cult-like sect not only discriminated against the non-believers, they influenced the town officials to make their lives difficult. For instance, a non-member, who was denied a water connection, had to carry water to her home and sewage away from it for six years, while the property of another man, who left the church, was vandalized repeatedly but the police never paid any attention to his complaints, according to the Associated Press.
Warren Jeffs, convicted in 2011 and sentenced to a life sentence plus 20 years in prison for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old girl who he claimed were his “spiritual wives,” once led the towns.
The Department of Justice filed the civil-rights lawsuit against the towns.
“In its advisory verdict, the jury found that the Colorado City Marshal’s Office, the cities’ joint police department, operated as an arm of the FLDS church in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment,” the U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement on Monday. “[They] engaged in discriminatory policing in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the establishment clause; and subjected individuals to unlawful stops, seizures and arrests in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
In its final decision, the jury awarded $2.2 million to six residents eligible for damages, although the polygamous towns will only have to pay $1.6 million, thanks to lawyers who negotiated a settlement by claiming the government was imposing on the residents’ religious freedom by prosecuting the case because they disliked the towns’ unusual beliefs. The judge will now decide what other punishments to impose.
Along with the civil-rights case, the FLDS church faces multiple other lawsuits, including allegations of followers pulling children out of school to harvest pecans and a high-profile food-stamp fraud case involving 11 of the church’s biggest leaders.