Jury Finds Polygamous Towns Discriminated Against Church Outsiders
PHOENIX -- A federal jury determined two polygamous towns on the Arizona-Utah border discriminated against residents who weren’t part of the dominant faith.
The verdict comes after a seven-week trial in Phoenix’s federal courthouse. It is a blow to the twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, that are home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and now could wind up in receivership as a result of this case.
Followers of the FLDS church practice polygamy and broke off from mainstream Mormonism over that issue.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed the lawsuit against the towns in 2012 and the 12-member jury sided with the federal government on every count.
The jury determined Colorado City, Hildale and their water company violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against FLDS church outsiders, and denying those residents housing, utilities and police protection.
The jury also made an advisory finding that the local police department failed to uphold the separation of church and state, engaged in discriminatory policing and made improper arrests and seizures. The final ruling on those counts will ultimately be up to the federal judge in the case.
The jury awarded more than $2.2 million in damages, but while the jury was deliberating, the parties agreed to a partial settlement that requires the towns to pay the federal government $1.6 million for damages to discrimination victims.
Now that the jury has ruled in favor of the Justice Department, it will be up to the judge to decide what kind of reforms to mandate in the two towns to prevent discrimination.
One of the first people in Colorado City to get the news of the verdict was Patrick Barlow, a 39-year-old former member of the FLDS church.
“My heart was thumping inside my chest and I had chills go down my spine in thrill,” Barlow said. “Because I know what this means to our society there.”
A Justice Department lawyer called Barlow on Monday to tell him about the win.
Barlow testified for the Justice Department about how a mob of church members that included utility officials removed the water connection on his property in 2013 after he was kicked out of the FLDS church. Barlow believes he was punished because he refused to follow church orders to leave town and his wife and two children.
When Barlow moved into an adjacent house, the water was disconnected there, too. He told the jury he had to haul his own water. He said he only succeeded in getting a water connection this past summer.
Barlow is one of six individuals the Justice Department initially designated to get damages for emotional distress, though now the federal government may choose to distribute the $1.6 million to a greater number of individuals.
“We are very, very grateful for what has happened,” Barlow said.
The towns of Colorado City and Hildale have a combined population of less than 8,000 people and were originally settled by members of the FLDS church. The church has come under scrutiny for marriages between underage girls and adult men. The church’s prophet, Warren Jeffs, is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting young girls he claimed were spiritual wives.
During the trial, the Justice Department presented witnesses who described how church leaders weighed in on town policies and public appointments in back room meetings with town officials, and devised policies aimed at denying water and utilities to church outsiders.
Former church members testified that church leaders would expel members of the church and force them to leave the community. Several witnesses testified that church leaders would reassign the wives and children of expelled men to other men. Justice Department lawyers argued church leaders used this power to ensure loyalty from church members, including town officials.
In several instances church and town leaders invoked their First Amendment and Fifth Amendment rights not to answer questions due to religious freedom and the right to not incriminate themselves. The most notable case was when the Justice Department called current Colorado City mayor Joseph Allred to testify, and Allred invoked his First and Fifth Amendment rights to not answer more than 60 times in 45 minutes.
Allred refused to answer questions about housing and water policies, accusations that he funneled money from the local water company to the FLDS church, and records suggesting he married girls as young as 15 and 17.
The defense lawyers for Colorado City and Hildale argued to the jury the federal government was bringing this case to try and eradicate the unpopular FLDS religion, and the FLDS church was to blame for the emotional distress in the communities, not the town governments.
“Are we disappointed? Certainly we are,” said Colorado City’s lawyer Jeff Matura after the jury’s verdict was read. “Do we think we put on a good case supported by evidence? Yeah we do. But at the end of the day you respect the decision of the jury and it really is as simple as that.”
Matura said his side entered into the partial settlement to shield his clients from the possibility of a higher payout mandated by the jury.
This isn’t the only federal action against the community that stands to impact the reach of the FLDS church.
The U.S. Labor Department has a separate lawsuit against a pecan farm with church connections over child labor.
Just last month federal officers arrested 11 FLDS church members on charges of food stamp fraud and money laundering.
“The timing of that raid was, was interesting for us,” Matura said, noting the arrests happened the day before closing arguments were originally scheduled in this trial.
“Were they connected? We will never know, but it was an unfortunate event to occur that got so much publicity right towards the tail end of our trial,” Matura said.
The U.S. Justice Department would not offer a comment on tape for this story, but in a statement, civil rights division head Vanita Gupta said the “verdict reaffirms that America guarantees all people equal protection and fair treatment, regardless of their religious beliefs.”
Bill Walker, a Tucson lawyer who represents some of the Justice Department’s witnesses in the case called the verdict, “a complete victory for justice and for freedom from oppressive cults that call themselves a religion.”
Walker said this case was the culmination of years of work by not just the federal government, but also the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, local law enforcement and local residents.
Walker and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office won a religious discrimination trial in 2014 against Colorado City and Hildale that this lawsuit expanded upon.
The testimony in the seven-week trial was at times dramatic.
A former police chief for the joint Colorado City-Hildale police department, Helaman Barlow, testified he had formerly perjured himself under oath due to pressure from the FLDS church and fear that church leadership would separate him from his family if he seemed disloyal.
The U.S. Department of Justice offered Helaman Barlow immunity in exchange for his testimony. He described how his old police force aimed to protect the church. Helaman Barlow acknowledged he had helped the church’s prophet Warren Jeffs when Jeffs was a federal fugitive, and the police force had turned a blind eye to underage marriages in the towns because of their faith.
Helaman Barlow told the jury the church’s former prophet gave him this advice when he first became a marshal in 1994: “Your job is to stand between church and all harm. That is your calling.”
Patrick Barlow, the former FLDS member who later lost his water connection, also testified about how when he was in good standing with the church, he was part of the church’s secretive security force. He said church security did 24/7 surveillance to protect the church from outside law enforcement and spy on church outsiders.
Barlow said he was tasked with spying on a non FLDS couple who had moved into town against the church’s wishes. The couple, Ron and Jinjer Cooke, were denied water and sewer connections and had to haul their own water and dispose of their raw sewage for years.
Barlow testified that non FLDS members were denied utilities in an effort to get them to leave the community.
“That was our effort, was to try and deny them services or treat them as badly as we could as indirectly as possible to get them discouraged,” Barlow told the jury.
Barlow said only later did he experience it from the other side, once he was a church outsider himself.
Next the federal judge will decide what kind of remedies to prescribe. Justice Department lawyers could ask the judge to put the towns in receivership, install a federal monitor or disband the local police force.
As for Patrick Barlow, he has an idea of the changes he would like to see.
“I really hope they can just take the cities and restaff them with people that are not from the community,” he said.
Barlow said that will mean residents who are not part of the FLDS church will no longer face discrimination from officials and police officers.
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