PRESCOTT, Ariz. – The Justice Department has set its sights on two small towns along the Arizona-Utah border, claiming that Mormon fundamentalists and their jailed leader control the area’s police force and ostracize nonmembers.
The twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, have long been a haven for members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a polygamy-practicing breakaway sect. The church’s United Effort Plan (UEP) owns most of the property in the communities, and outsiders are not exactly encouraged to move in. The tiny, rural communities have also been a longstanding target of their respective states, and the federal government.
In a recent lawsuit, the Justice Department claims that the towns’ municipal government, police force and utility companies are de facto arms of the church. Members of the towns’ police force, called the Marshal’s Office, arrest non-FLDS members without probable cause and refuse to help excommunicated women leave the community with their children, the lawsuit states.
“The Marshal’s Office fails to protect non-FLDS individuals from victimization by FLDS members, fails to investigate crimes against non-FLDS individuals and their property, and refuses to arrest FLDS individuals who have committed crimes against non-FLDS individuals,” the lawsuit claims. “These crimes and actions include destroying crops on a non-FLDS-operated farm, vandalizing property in the control of the UEP Trust, returning at least one underage bride to a home from which she had fled, and trespassing on property occupied by non-FLDS individuals.”
The sect’s leader, Warren Jeffs, was convicted of two counts of child sexual assault in 2011, but supposedly still heads the group from prison.
“Defendants 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,” the lawsuit states. “The cities’ public officials, the Colorado City/Hildale Marshal’s Office, and utility entities have acted in concert with FLDS leadership to deny non-FLDS individuals housing, police protection, and access to public space and services. Furthermore, the defendants have denied non-FLDS members access to housing in the Cities, and they have coerced, intimidated, threatened, and interfered with the housing rights of non-FLDS members. The Marshal’s Office has inappropriately used its state-granted law enforcement authority to enforce the edicts of the FLDS, to the detriment of non-FLDS members. In addition, the cities’ officials have misdirected and misused public resources in the service of the FLDS.”
Colorado City’s attorney, Jeff Matura, told Courthouse News that the lawsuit was the somewhat-anticipated result of frustration in Utah and Arizona over recent unsuccessful attempts to control the towns.
Both states have attempted to “dismantle” the municipal governments through legislative actions, and both have failed, the Phoenix-based attorney said in an interview.
“There hasn’t been a successful civil rights lawsuit against Colorado or Hildale ever,” Matura said. “No one has ever taken the time to meet the communities to see if there is a problem.”
“Every allegation has a backstory to it,” he added. “I think there are a lot of motivations behind this.”
Matura said that he had talked to Colorado City residents shortly after the government filed suit Thursday.
The community has had its share of bad press over the years, most recently enduring take-over of the UEP by a court-appointed special fiduciary, Jeffs’ crimes, and a slew of tell-all books and other negative media depictions.
“They told me, ‘We have survived everything else, we will survive this as well,'” Matura said.
He said that they see the lawsuit and the states’ recent actions as an attempt to “turn [them] into mainstream Americans.”
“They think of themselves like the Amish,” Matura said. “The more the government and the states try to change them, the more they will dig in their heels and refuse to change.”
The Justice Department sued Colorado City, Hildale, Twin City Water Authority and Twin City Power, 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 of 1964. The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Perez.