'Apostate' challenges radical FLDS sect with civil rights lawsuit
John M. Gilonna, Mct
COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — Isaac Wyler is one of the unwanted ones.
For years, he has endured a cruel banishment from those he once considered brethren — followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Out here on the desert high plains, guarded by big-shouldered buttes, church outcasts are dismissed as "apostates," ostracized in life and condemned to burn in hell after death. Wyler was among several members banished by church leader Warren Jeffs in 2004 for unspecified sins.
"Jeffs told the women and children not to say goodbye to their husbands and fathers," said Wyler, a horse rancher with a white cowboy hat and piercing blue eyes. "It was his will that we now simply failed to exist."
But Wyler, 46, has refused to disappear. He and others collected evidence of church harassment that has become the basis of a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking to protect nonbelievers from the church and from civil and law enforcement authorities said to be under its control.
Filed last month by the U.S. Justice Department, the suit alleges that authorities in the twin border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City have for 20 years "operated as an arm" of the FLDS church.
Jeffs has called himself "president and prophet, seer and revelator." Law enforcement officials describe him in less lofty terms: as the leader of a polygamist cult who once made the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. He is serving a life sentence in Texas for child sexual assault.
Even from behind bars, the suit contends, Jeffs, 56, wields power here. Under his direction, those banished from the sect have been denied "housing, police protection and access to public space and services," according to the federal lawsuit, which seeks to bar local officials from discriminating against scores of former church members in both towns.
The FLDS is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.
Wyler is a native of Colorado City and a father of four who grew up in the FLDS but did not practice polygamy. He told Justice Department officials that those cast out by Jeffs have been denied electricity, water, building permits — even service at restaurants.
Local marshals have stopped their cars and arrested them without cause and allowed sect members to vandalize their property, the suit claims.
Attorneys for the border towns criticized the lawsuit as an unnecessary intrusion.
"This is a very heavy-handed attack," said Jeff Matura, a lawyer who represents Colorado City. "You've got two small communities in sovereign states. There's no need for the federal government to get involved. Arizona and Utah can take care of this."
The twin border towns are about an hour south of Zion National Park, where Utah's Route 59 turns into Route 389 on the Arizona side. To visit the towns is to step back in time. Women wear long-sleeve "prairie dresses," even in the summer heat, their hair worked into elaborate buns in the style of 19th century homesteaders.
Church members are forbidden to participate in sports, watch TV or read newspapers. Teenage girls are sometimes forced to marry men old enough to be their grandfathers.
Most residents avoid eye contact with visitors. Asked the name of the mayor, a paramedic chief looked at the ground, saying he didn't know.
Wyler, whose father had 39 children by four wives, loves the desert heat and the privacy of the place and says he helped build most of the houses here with his bare hands. But over time, he says, he began to harbor doubts about Jeffs' capricious dictates.