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Discovery Into Alleged Polygamist Sect Heats Up

(CN) - Religious discrimination claims against two towns on the Arizona-Utah border have met significant resistance from alleged members of a secretive polygamist sect, court records show.

U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland recently granted the Justice Department a second motion to compel in the case, ordering town officials to answer questions concerning the inner-workings and membership of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), including a "new" and "exclusive" leadership group within the sect called the "United Order," which allegedly requires its members to leave their families and hand over property.

Town officials argue that they have answered the government's questions, sometimes during marathon 10-hour depositions, and that those they refuse to answer are protected by the First Amendment.

The government sued the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, in June 2012, claiming that the towns' municipal government, police force and utility companies are de facto arms of the FLDS church.

Non-FLDS members allegedly find no protection from the towns' police force, called the Marshal's Office, which works as a kind of enforcer for the sect, even "returning at least one underage bride to a home from which she had fled," according to the complaint.

The sect's leader, Warren Jeffs, was convicted of two counts of child sexual assault in 2011 but allegedly still heads the group from a Texas prison.

Before facing depositions last summer, the towns lost a bid to exclude from discovery information on "FLDS teachings, practices, or beliefs, including but not limited to polygamy, underage marriage, 'loss of priesthood,' 'apostates,' 'lost boys,' 'repenting from afar,' 'handling' of members, prophesy, etc."

Nonetheless, in a September 2013 motion to compel, the government said that two members of the Marshal's Office and Colorado City's town clerk had refused to answer "many relevant questions concerning 'Religious Information,' such as who currently leads the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which government officials were FLDS members, and whether the FLDS church utilizes a security force."

"Defendants' employees also refused to answer relevant questions regarding the FLDS Church's new 'United Order,'" the motion stated. "Based on information and belief, the 'United Order' is a new exclusive FLDS group whose membership is determined by FLDS leadership; FLDS members not approved into the United Order are asked to leave their families and repent in hope that FLDS leadership will eventually choose them for the United Order; United Order members are expected to consecrate all their property over to the FLDS Church."

Judge Holland granted the motion later that month, finding that "what deponents know and what they have done in the course of their employment with one of the defendants is more likely than not a proper subject for inquiry, even if the answer will elicit information about the FLDS church and the United Order, their doctrines or directives, etc."

Justice Department attorneys filed their second motion to compel in February, claiming that Colorado City's mayor, vice mayor and the chief of the Marshal's Office had also refused to answer relevant questions.

"Despite the previous Motion to Compel, defendant employees still refuse to answer basic questions about the FLDS security force," the motion stated. "They still refuse to answer whether they are security force members and even as to whether a security force exists."

The defendants argued that the government was fishing, and that its allegations about the security force was similar to "contending that Boston's predominantly Irish Catholic police force has operated as an arm of the Catholic Church."

"Whenever deponents were asked questions regarding the allegations made by the Government in its Complaint, they answered them," the towns argued. "They properly refused, however, to answer questions regarding the strength or weakness of their religious beliefs and the identity of their co-religionists on First Amendment and privacy grounds. So too, they properly refused to answer questions which invaded the priest-penitent or clergy-communicant privilege or which violated their rights under the Fifth Amendment."

Judge Holland granted the second motion to compel on March 27.

"The court is mindful, that the First Amendment provides protection for a person's religious associations as well as a person's personal religious beliefs," he wrote. "Some of the questions posed by plaintiff's counsel involved the deponents' religious associations, rather than their personal religious beliefs. But, in order to properly invoke a First Amendment privilege, a deponent must first make a prima facie showing that answering a question would result in harassment or otherwise chill his associational rights. Defendants have made no showing that the discovery which plaintiff seeks here will result in the harassment of deponents or that it will have a chilling effect on deponents' associational rights."

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