Federal Trial Will Examine Power Dynamics Of Polygamous Towns
PHOENIX — A federal civil rights trial beginning this week in Phoenix is expected to examine the power dynamics of a secluded polygamous community on the Arizona-Utah border.
The remote towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, were settled by followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a religious sect that practices polygamy and broke off from the Mormon faith in the late 19th Century.
The U.S. Department of Justice is accusing the towns of discriminating against people who are not members of the church, known commonly as FLDS.
The rural towns are a single community split by the state borderline. According to the last census count, fewer than 8,000 people live in the two towns combined. While the majority are FLDS members, others in town were banished from the church or left on their own.
The Justice Department will try to prove the towns act as arms of the church, and make life difficult for church outsiders to live there. The federal government will be calling on local residents like Isaac Wyler to testify in the upcoming trial.
“If you become crosswise with the church you are crosswise with the town,” Wyler said in a phone interview from his home in Colorado City. “So it is very difficult if you are non-FLDS, for instance, to get a simple water hook up that an FLDS member could get in a heartbeat.”
Wyler, 50, grew up in the FLDS church in a polygamous family. But in the late 1990s he didn’t like the direction the church was going under the leadership of Warren Jeffs, who began to assume more control of the church at that time and later became the church’s leader.
“It seems like we was headed towards really young marriages and that really bothered me,” Wyler said.
Jeffs has been accused of forcing underage marriages within the sect. He was convicted in 2011 of sexually assaulting two minors he took as brides and is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison.
One day in 2004, long before Jeffs’ arrest, Jeffs kicked Wyler and several other men out of the church. But Wyler refused to leave town.
Now Wyler works for the land trust, which is at odds with the FLDS church. Wyler said that has caused the local police in the Colorado City-Hildale Marshal’s Office to harass him and arrest him for trespassing when he is trying to do his job.
“The marshal’s department, the cities, they are all owned by the church, they are all just a part of church anyway,” Wyler said. “You don’t get a position in the city without going through the church."
As part of the case, the Justice Department will try to prove the town marshals are loyal to their religion — not the law — and allowed illegal church practices, including marriages of underage girls to adult men.
The attorney defending Colorado City, Jeff Matura, does not deny there used to be problems with the marshals in the mid-2000s.
But Matura said those issues were resolved years ago, and the problem marshals have long since left the force.
He argues there’s an ulterior motive behind the Justice Department’s lawsuit.
“It has really turned into an effort by the federal government to eradicate a religion — the FLDS church — that it disapproves of,” Matura said.
Over Matura’s objections, the Justice Department is expected to introduce evidence about Warren Jeffs into the trial. The federal government alleges Jeffs continues to run the church and the town from his prison cell, and that town marshals aided him when he was a fugitive.
“The federal government wants to put on evidence that will feed into negative publicity regarding the religion and the church,” Matura said. “The claims are against the Colorado City and Hildale, not against the church. So we will put on a case about the municipal functions and what these towns actually do. And it will be incumbent upon the judge and jury to be able to separate the two.”
Because of the nature of evidence that will be presented at the trial, many longtime observers of the community believe it will provide a rare window in.
Sam Brower, a private investigator and author of the book, Prophet's Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, said he believes this trial will be even more significant than Jeffs’ trial in Texas.
“This trial will hopefully give a big picture of the things that go on there,” Brower said. “In my opinion those towns are the most lawless towns in America and they really need some kind of government intervention there.”
The Justice Department must convince the jury more than just a few rogue town officials acted as arms of the church, and there was a pattern of religious discrimination. The federal government is expected to call as witnesses former town officials who have since admitted their coordination with church leadership. Another witness for the government is Jeffs’ former bodyguard.
University of Notre Dame Law School professor Richard Garnett said while most lawsuits dealing with the division of church and state are about symbolic issues, this case is different.
“This case really invokes those kinds of original type concerns that would have been on the minds of the people who gave us the First Amendment,” Garnett said, referring to the portion that prevents government from establishing an official religion.
“This isn’t going to be a matter of simply like how many Christmas carols were sung at the school holiday production — this is going to be much more about inter-mixing of power,” Garnett said.
Roger Hoole, a Salt Lake City attorney who provides legal services to people who have left the FLDS church, said there should have been an intervention sooner in these towns.
“This should have been done by the states years and years ago,” Hoole said. “The problem should never have been institutionalized the way it has.”
If the federal government is successful, it will seek monetary damages for victims of discrimination, and town reforms ordered by the judge. That could involve disbanding the Marshal’s Office, or placing some of the towns’ functions in receivership.
As for Colorado City resident Isaac Wyler, he is hoping his hometown will one day “become like a normal community in the United States of America and have the freedom to just be free.”
Wyler said there were moments when he feared this trial might not go forward.
“I was actually afraid at one point they would settle, and we wouldn’t be able to get the truth out,” Wyler said. “That is all I am after, is just to have the truth come out.”
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