Closing arguments in the trial against the sister cities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), ended on Wednesday.
At the heart of each argument, both sides claimed religious discrimination. The U.S. Department of Justice told the jury the towns discriminated against non-FLDS members in a number of ways, including denying water hookups, unfair police conduct and the excessive use of force, unreasonable search and seizure, and trespassing arrests of church outsiders. They also said that city officials were seeking and receiving directions from church leaders, including jailed FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs.
Members of what is now the FLDS church broke away from the mainstream LDS church in the late 19th century because of their belief in the practice of polygamy. Over the last decade or so, the church has gained much attention because of a number of arrests in the community related to the sexual abuse of minors.
Warren Jeffs has been accused of arranging marriages of adult men to underage girls, as well as routinely excommunicating men from the church, and reassigning their wives as he deemed fit. Jeffs is currently serving a life sentence for two counts of sexual assault of a child.
The defense said the towns themselves were not to blame. Instead, they made the argument that the FLDS church was responsible for the emotional distress and damages in question. Lead defense attorney Jeff Matura said the Justice Department wants the jury to be so mad and disgusted at the FLDS church, that they will decide to punish the towns.
“Recognize that the government is trying to trick you. Don’t fall for that trick,” Matura said.
He also said the Justice Department is trying to eradicate the entire religion.
“If the FLDS church weren’t in these towns, there’s no doubt this claim never gets brought," Matura said. "So the bigger picture here is how far is the government willing to go to, as we said, eradicate a religion that it finds distasteful. And if it’s going to do it for a town of less than 10,000 people – what’s next?”
One of the Justice Department’s allegations is that town officials violated the First Amendment provision that mandates the separation of church and state by allowing the FLDS church to set town policies. In his closing remarks, Justice Department lead attorney Sean Keveney made clear that city officials have the freedom to choose their religion and belong to a church.
“What city officials are not free to do is violate the laws and Constitution of the United States of America. And that’s exactly what they’ve done,” he said.
Former FLDS church member Dowayne Barlow, who testified on behalf of the Justice Department, sees the line between church and state as permanently blurred in the towns. “I don’t know how you can draw the line and say, you know, this is not dominated by the FLDS,” said Barlow. “And really if the religion has gone nasty, has gone bad, I just don’t see how you can not draw the line and keep it from going into the city governments.”
Bill Walker, an attorney who represents several witnesses for the Justice Department, said the outcome of this case is about more than just the verdict. For him, it’s about making sure the FLDS church is not running these towns.
“More than anything else, I’m hoping that what will come out of this will be some kind of receivership or some kind of control of these cities, that are done by somebody that’s neutral,” said Walker.
The defense maintained that the Justice Department had not met its burden of proof, while the Justice Department contended the defense was using this argument to shift the focus from the groups’ own misconduct.
The decisions are now in the hands of 12 jury members from Northern Arizona. They must decide whether the towns engaged in housing discrimination, or violated the first, fourth, or fourteenth amendments.