Jan 28, 2016

Trial Explores Whether Towns Discriminate Against Nonmembers of Polygamous Sect

New York Times
January 20, 2016

PHOENIX — When an unfamiliar car drives into the small neighboring towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, private security agents working for the polygamist sect that dominates the towns ask the local marshals, who act as the police for both towns, to run the license plates to see who is passing through, federal prosecutors said.

Women wear ankle-length dresses. Children are taught to distrust strangers. Men think they need to have at least three wives to earn eternal salvation.

Most of the 10,000 people who live in these towns live by the rules of the cloistered world they inhabit and the dictates of a polygamous sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose prophet, Warren S. Jeffs, is serving a life sentence for the sexual assault of underage girls he said were his wives. And now, in Federal District Court here, 12 jurors will be asked to decide whether the two municipalities are run in a way that discriminates against outsiders, depriving them of their housing and civil rights.

According to the federal government’s complaint, originally filed in 2012, the towns and their utilities “have engaged in a pattern or practice of illegal discrimination against individuals who are not members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

For their part, lawyers representing Hildale and Colorado City say the issue at hand is religious freedom; they accuse the government of discriminating against an unpopular religion, whose legality is not being challenged.

Jeffrey Matura, who represents Colorado City, said in opening arguments Wednesday that the federal government “wants you as a jury to hold Colorado City and Hildale liable for the sins of the church.” But what jurors are being asked is to decide if Colorado City and Hildale discriminate against residents who are not members of the sect, he said.

“At the end of this trial,” Mr. Matura went on, “you’ll have the rare opportunity of telling the federal government ‘no.’ ”

In her opening statement, Jessica Clarke Crockett, a trial lawyer for the Justice Department, said the case was about safeguarding “some of the most basic rights and freedoms of our democracy,” including, she said, “the freedom to live in a city ruled by the law of the land, not the law of religion.”

For at least 20 years, prosecutors say, the towns and their institutions — including their electric and water utilities — have operated as a branch of Mr. Jeffs’s sect, which he is said to still control from behind bars. The handful of marshals the municipalities share are there to enforce the rules of their religious leaders and not the rule of American law, prosecutors say. In so doing, the government asserts, Colorado City and Hildale created a two-tiered system in which police protections, water connections and building permits were granted based on whether people were — or were not — aligned with the sect.

At times, marshals pulled over unknown vehicles only to check who was inside, the complaint says. And sometimes, drivers who were not sect members were cited for traffic violations that did not result in citations against drivers who were part of the sect.

Among other charges, the defendants “refused to negotiate for the sale of housing, denied housing, or otherwise made housing unavailable because of religion,” according to the government’s complaint, which seeks unspecified civil monetary damages as compensation.

After breaking for lunch, the prosecution called its first witness, Dowayne Barlow, a former aide to Mr. Jeffs’s brother, Lyle, the sect’s bishop. Mr. Barlow, who is no longer a member of the sect and who is a cousin of the Hildale mayor, said the sect’s security agents were not a benign neighborhood watch, but “a network that spied on the people for the church leadership,” looking for people who were “out of conformance with church regulations,” by doing such things as “talking to apostates.”

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints broke away when mainstream Mormonism disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago. The sect settled in the area that is today Colorado City and Hildale, adjacent towns that are set against towering red mountains along the intersection of northwestern Arizona and southwestern Utah.

Blake Hamilton, a lawyer for Hildale, told the jurors, “This country is founded under principles of religious freedom,” and it is easy “to accept a religion when it’s popular.” When it is not, it can be just as easy to assume that “people who think so differently than yourselves are more capable of harm,” he said.

“The church,” he went on, “is not on trial.”

From the bench, Judge H. Russel Holland instructed the jury of eight men and four women from northern Arizona, “Keep an open mind throughout the trial.”


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