Civil Liberties

Religious Discrimination Case Against Polygamous Towns Goes Forward

But are these fundamentalist-LDS towns the perpetrators or the victims of religious discrimination?



A U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit against a pair of polygamous towns on the Utah-Arizona border will go to trial early next year. The agency alleges that police and officials in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, systematically discriminated against residents who are not members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a Mormon offshoot known for polygamy, patriarchy, and its cult-like leader Warren Jeffs. But the towns say this is just the latest in a long tradition of targeted harassment by government agents opposed to the separatist, religious lifestyle of residents.

"The lawsuit alleges that the communities' police officers have confronted people about their disobedience of church rules, failed to investigate crimes against them and returned an underage bride home after she had fled," the Associated Press reports. The lawsuit also says that non-fundamentalist residents were discriminated against in terms of housing and water services, and that city officials have continued to take orders from Jeffs, who is currently serving life in federal prison on child sexual-assault charges. The feds claim Hildale and Colorado City—which have a combined population of about 7,500—are in violation of the Fair Housing Act, Title III of the Civil Rights Act, and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

The towns denied all allegations. In June, U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland denied motions from both the DOJ and the towns, thereby allowing the case to go forward to a trial.

So who has a better case? The DOJ's claims against these towns certainly seem plausible—Hildale and Colorado City are ground zero for the kind of insular, abusive, and ultra-conservative religious sects that give polygamy such a bad name. And in another lawsuit, settled last year, a federal jury did find the local water-utility guilty of denying a family service on religious grounds. Yet DOJ evidence against Hildale and Colorado City seems pretty scant, and it's also plausible that federal prosecutors simply have it out for these much-maligned communities.

This particular case has been kicking around since 2012, when the lawsuit was originally filed. The feds claim Hildale and Colorado City government officials were uncooperative from the beginning and refused to answer questions about things like church leadership, which town officials were FLDS members, and how many members of town security forces were with the FLDS.

But "the towns countered that the government was fishing, and that its allegations about the security force were similar to 'contending that Boston's predominantly Irish Catholic police force has operated as an arm of the Catholic Church,'" Courthouse News Service reports.

Colorado City's attorney, Jeff Matura, told Courthouse News in 2012 that the lawsuit was the anticipated result of frustration in Utah and Arizona over unsuccessful attempts to control the towns.

Both states have tried to "dismantle" the municipal governments through legislative actions, and both have failed, the Phoenix-based attorney said.

Several previous civil-rights investigations have also been unfruitful. And in 2013, Judge Holland dismissed part of the state's argument in this current case, as it relied on declaring a community park and zoo to be municipally operated merely because town police patrolled there.

"No one has ever taken the time to meet the communities to see if there is a problem," Matura told CNS, adding that "the more the government and the states try to change [these communities], the more they will dig in their heels and refuse to change." That's a shame, because there have been signs the towns have been changing with Jeffs now gone. Hildale recently welcomed its first national-chain restaurant (Subway) and, more significantly, the town's first public school since Jeffs decreed 13 years ago that all FLDS kids be homeschooled. It also held a 4th of July celebration thought to be the first large, public gathering of community members since 2002.