Jan 19, 2016

Arizona Trial to Scrutinize Polygamous Community

Wall Street Journal
January18, 2016

A trial starting this week in Phoenix will pit a polygamous religious community against the U.S. government, which claims the community’s public officers discriminate against people who don’t share the sect’s beliefs.

The Justice Department in 2012 sued Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, adjacent border towns populated by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, which broke away from the mainstream Mormon Church after it rejected polygamy in 1890.

The government alleges that city leaders and law enforcement in the towns serve at the bidding of church leaders and routinely fail to protect the constitutional rights of all residents. Opening statements are slated to begin Wednesday in what is expected to be a five-week trial.

Testimony from current and former residents, police department members, public officials and outside experts is likely to offer a rare view into the inner workings of the roughly 10,000-person community, located about an hour’s drive from mountainous Zion National Park.

The alleged discrimination, according to the Justice Department, includes refusing to arrest church members who committed crimes against nonmembers, destroying crops on nonmembers’ farms and failing to fairly provide housing and utility services like water to nonmembers, in violation of federal laws.

The fundamentalist sect follows the teachings of Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls. He was convicted in 2011 after years of scrutiny. At one point he appeared on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

Jeffrey Matura, an attorney for Colorado City, said religion played no role in the actions cited in the complaint and that “this case is an effort of the government to try and eradicate a religion that it finds distasteful.”

Blake Hamilton, an attorney for Hildale, said the town plans to show there was no pattern or practice of discrimination. There have been a few isolated incidents in the past, he said, that led to some officers being removed from duty. “This is an overreach by the federal government,” he said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church, said through a spokesman that it has no connection to various fundamentalist groups in the Southwest and would excommunicate any member who practiced polygamy.

A judge denied a request from government lawyers to force Lyle Jeffs, an FLDS bishop and brother to Warren Jeffs, to testify in court. Testimony from a video deposition could still be played for a jury.

Amos Guiora, a law professor at the University of Utah who has studied the fundamentalist sect for several years, said that if the government is able to prove the community’s law enforcement isn’t independent but instead an arm of the church, “it raises incredibly powerful questions on the separation of church and state.”

Separately, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments this month over the legality of polygamy in Utah. A lower-court ruling in 2013 struck down a criminal ban on polygamous cohabitation, saying the state failed to demonstrate the harms associated with it. Issuing multiple marriage licenses to a single person is still prohibited.

Write to Sara Randazzo at sara.randazzo@wsj.com


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