A jury found Monday that two towns on the Utah-Arizona border denied police services, housing, and utilities to residents who were not part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, were found to have violated federal civil rights laws by discriminating against people who were not part of the polygamous sect, which is disavowed by the LDS church. The verdict followed years of injustice, prosecutors said. Defense lawyers argued, however, that the government was acting on a vendetta against the polygamists because it did not agree with their beliefs.
On Monday, the jury awarded $2.2 million in damages to six residents, the Associated Press reported. Due to a partial settlement, the towns will pay $1.6 million, and a judge has yet to determine other potential punishment, such as disbanding the Colorado City Marshal's Office.
The verdict came a week after 11 church officials were arrested on suspicion of fraud for allegedly misusing food stamps.
In the discrimination case, prosecutors argued the towns were structured to be extensions of the fundamentalist church, a violation of the U.S. Constitution. The Marshal's Office, which provides police services to the combined population of about 7,500, served as a church enforcement wing: refusing to investigate crimes against non-church members and leading surveillance of those outside the church, prosecutors said.
Examples in the complaint against the towns included an instance in 2000, when prosecutors said then-church leader Warren Jeffs ordered another church member to return an underage bride to the home of her new husband after she ran away. Three Marshal's deputies confronted the man, demanding the return of the girl, the complaint said.
Jeffs is currently serving a sentence of life in prison for sexual assault of a child.
In another instance in 2001, prosecutors said Marshal's deputies carried out an edict by Jeffs banning pet dogs. Deputies went house by house, collecting dogs, then shot and killed them outside the towns, prosecutors said.
The complaint also alleged that the area water authority denied service to non-church members, citing a water shortage that did not actually exist. Children were threatened with arrest for playing in a park because they were not church members, prosecutors said, and non-church members were also denied building permits or access to existing housing.
"For decades, officials of the Cities have, by operating at the direction and for the benefit of the [Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints], abdicated their official duties to protect the rights of all citizens equally and to administer governmental functions consistently with the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution," prosecutors said.
Claudia Koerner is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Claudia Koerner at email@example.com.
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