(CN) – A federal jury awarded $5.2 million to a couple living in a polygamist town on the Arizona-Utah border, finding that officials had for years denied them water and power because they are not members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect.
Ronald and Jinjer Cooke sued officials in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, most of whose residents belong to the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). The 2010 complaint alleged that town and church officials were one in the same, and that they had conspired to drive nonmembers like themselves out of town as apostates by denying them basic services. Ronald Cooke has been disabled since a truck hit him several years ago, and he said in his complaint that the lack of utilities had exacerbated his condition.
Alleging a pattern of such religious discrimination in the isolated, rural communities, the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona both intervened in the case, which went to trial in Phoenix in January and wrapped up Thursday after 23 days with a big win for the plaintiffs.
Jurors found that the towns and the utilities had violated federal and state fair housing laws “by discriminating against the Cookes in the provision of services or facilities because of religion,” and that they had intimidated and harassed the couple in retaliation. The verdict awards $2.6 million each to Ronald and Jinjer Cooke.
In his complaint, Ronald Cooke said he was raised in the polygamist sect but left Colorado City at age 18. The Cookes returned to the town in 2007 to be near family and friends. They applied to the United Effort Plan (UEP), the FLDS housing cooperative that owns many of the structures in Colorado City, and began moving into an unfinished house that had been abandoned by its former owner. Soon after, officials told the Cookes that they needed new permits and inspections to obtain utilities, and claimed that the “system was overextended” – all while allegedly providing water and electric services to other unfinished homes without new permits.
Attorneys for the towns argued that the Cookes’ suit was something of a test case and an attempt by special fiduciary Bruce Wisan to subvert the sect’s religious freedom. Wisan has controlled the UEP since 2006 under orders from a federal court in Utah.
Town officials argued that he issued the Cookes an occupancy agreement to the unfinished house in 2008, knowing full well that it had no hookups and that the town’s water supply was overtaxed. They also claimed that the Cookes had never properly applied for permits to obtain services.
Hanging over all of these issues was the name Warren Jeffs, whom many FLDS detractors claim still controls the communities from his Texas prison cell. Jeffs is serving 20 years to life for child sexual assault.
In a statement after Thursday’s verdict, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne called Colorado City a town “where young girls are kept in polygamous marriages by older men, and boys are kicked out of town so the older men will not have competition.”
“The defendants denied the Cookes water, sewer and electric service based on religion,” Horne said, adding that “this finding will enable the state to obtain injunctive and affirmative relief to eradicate the discrimination.”
There is a similar effort underway by the Justice Department, which filed a civil rights action against the towns and others in 2012, alleging religious discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and Title III of the Civil Rights Act.
Despite the damages victory, the Cookes were still hauling their water as of Tuesday, attorney William Walker said in an interview.
“They have some services,” Walker said. “They have power and they have sewer, but they don’t have culinary water.”
By Friday, Walker may submit a memorandum to U.S. District Judge James Teilborg as to equitable relief, which will likely come in the form of an injunction.
The defendants have until April 11 to respond. Meantime, Walker said that he sent a letter to the defendants this week “demanding that they hook the Cookes up immediately,” and giving them 10 days to respond.
Jeff Matura, the attorney for Colorado City, said his client “intends to explore its appeal options, as every party does once a trial ends.”
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