The towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, are predominantly occupied by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a radical offshoot of Mormonism.
But not everyone in the towns is a believer.
And on Monday, a federal jury in Phoenix ruled that the towns violated the constitutional rights of those who did not belong to the religious sect.
During the trial, prosecutors cataloged a long list of ways that town officials acted inappropriately, according to the Associated Press. Officials took orders from the church about whom to appoint to government jobs. Police ignored illegal marriages between adult men and minor girls, and lied to protect the sect’s leader Warren Jeffs when he was a fugitive from charges that he raped one of his 24 underage brides.
A non-member testified that she was denied a water connection, forcing her to carry water to her home and sewage away from it for six years. When a man left the church, police ignored hundreds of complaints of vandalism on his property, the AP reported.
All of that added up to the violation of numerous constitutional rights, prosecutors argued.
“In its advisory verdict, the jury found that the the Colorado City Marshal’s Office, the cities’ joint police department, operated as an arm of the FLDS church in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment; engaged in discriminatory policing in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the establishment clause; and subjected individuals to unlawful stops, seizures and arrests in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix said in a statement on Monday.
But lawyers for the towns saw it differently. They said the government was impinging on the residents’ religious liberty, by prosecuting the case just because they disapproved of their unusual beliefs, according to the AP. The lawyers warned that other religions could be prosecuted next.
The judge has not yet decided what the penalties will be for the towns, the AP reported. The U.S. Attorney’s Office press release said that before the verdict, the towns and their municipal water company already agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle part of the case, relating to housing.
Meanwhile, the FLDS sect faces several other legal challenges. Jeffs, the leader, has been imprisoned since 2011, serving a life sentence for sexual assault of a minor. The U.S. Labor Department has brought a suit allegations that members pulled children out of school to work harvesting pecans. And while the seven-week trial was underway, 11 of the church’s leaders were charged with food-stamp fraud.
“If they’re finally going to prosecute Lyle [Jeffs] and the leaders of the church, it will eventually bring the church down,” Wallace Jeffs, a half-brother of Warren Jeffs who was expelled from FLDS, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “This pretty much cuts the head off the snake.”
The Justice Department proclaimed Monday’s verdict a victory for religious freedom.
Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement: “When communities deny their residents critical services simply because of where they worship, they violate our laws and threaten the defining values of religious freedom and tolerance that are the foundation of our country.”