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Mormons Ask 9th Cir. to Intervene on Testimony

(CN) - Members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect embroiled in a legal battle with the federal government asked the 9th Circuit to toss a pair of court orders compelling them to testify about the inner workings of their church.

The twin communities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, have long been rural havens for the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The federal government sued the towns, along with Twin City Power and Twin City Water Authority, in June 2012, alleging they discriminate against non-sect residents by controlling access to housing, water and power, and police protection.

Discovery in the case has been contentious, with sect members citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in refusing to answer certain questions about the church, its leaders, its relationship with the towns' police force, and its alleged communications with jailed former leader Warren Jeffs, among other things.

Jeffs was convicted of two counts of child sexual assault in 2011 but allegedly still heads the group from a Texas prison.

In October 2014, U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland granted two motions to compel testimony filed by the government, rejecting the towns' move to exclude information about the sect's teachings, practices, or beliefs from discovery.

Last week, attorneys for the towns asked the federal appeals court in San Francisco to review Judge Holland's recent handling of the case.

In a series of rulings, Holland ordered Curtis Cooke, an officer with the towns' police force, to answer certain "questions having to do with his FLDS membership, the United Order, FLDS leaders and their directives, communications with fugitive Warren Jeffs, the United Effort Plan Trust, and FLDS church security."

Holland also ordered Vergel Steed, a former member of the Colorado City town council and Twin City Power's board, to answer questions about the "United Order, FLDS leaders and their directives, the United Effort Plan Trust, and church security."

The United Order is allegedly an exclusive and powerful leadership group within the church, and the United Effort Plan is a church trust that owns much of the private property in the towns.

Attorneys for the towns argued that forcing Cooke's and Steed's testimony would violate their deeply held and sincere religious beliefs, as both have taken vows "not to discuss matters related to the internal affairs or organization of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

Holland disagreed, finding that the government had in both motions shown a compelling interest in the information.

"Officer Cooke's showing of harassment or other consequences is weak," Holland wrote. "It is not at all clear that his vow is something more than a self-imposed, testimony avoidance technique, as opposed to a tenet of his church. His showing of adverse consequences is both speculative and conclusory."

An opening brief in the appeal is due on April 8, 2015.

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