City governments and their police departments may not favor one religious group over another and may not discriminate against individuals because of their religious affiliation. —Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division
HILDALE, Washington County — The U.S. Justice Department is suing the twin polygamous towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., citing a pattern of mistreatment of those who are not members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Arizona, alleges that the cities' non-FLDS residents are discriminated against when it comes to police protection, housing and other public services — violating their civil rights.
"City governments and their police departments may not favor one religious group over another and may not discriminate against individuals because of their religious affiliation," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "No individual in the United States should be targeted for discriminatory treatment by a city, its officials or the police because of his or her religion."
The lawsuit seeks a court order to prohibit future discrimination against non-FLDS residents, monetary damages for those harmed by the cities' actions and a civil penalty.
The FLDS group is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
According to the lawsuit, public officials in the border towns have operated "as an arm of the FLDS Church" for the past 20-plus years.
"The cities' governments … have been deployed to carry out the will of FLDS leaders, particularly Warren Jeffs and the officials to whom he delegates authority," the complaint states.
Jeffs is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison after being found guilty of two counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child stemming from two young followers he took as brides.
Blake Hamilton, an attorney for local law enforcement in the twin towns, said the Justice Department had threatened the lawsuit in December when they met with him and another attorney representing Colorado City.
"DOJ asked us to dismantle a community," Hamilton said. "There's nothing to support the allegation that non-FLDS members are treated differently."
Elissa Wall, a former FLDS member, said on several occasions she witnessed police abusing their power to mistreat those who didn't support Jeffs.
"They have sadly become the henchman of their prophet," said Wall, who left the group 7 ½ years ago. "Often in Warren's teachings, he would say, 'We do not adhere to the laws of the land.' The police force of the FLDS have often expressed this through their actions. They do not adhere to the laws of the land. They adhere to the laws of their priesthood and their prophet."
Wall, now 25, played a key role in Jeffs' conviction, testifying in 2007 about the "spiritual marriage" the FLDS leader performed between her at age 14 and her cousin, Allen Steed.
"In my darkest hour, when I needed someone to protect me, I knew there was no way I could go to the Colorado City police force and get the help that I needed," she said.
Wall said she hopes the Justice Department's action will lead to the disbanding of town officials and the police.
"It's been impossible for (non-FLDS) people to live there without harassment by city officials, by utility officials and by the police," she said. "That needs to stop. It's time for the state and all levels of government to put their foot down and say, 'Enough.'"
According to the Justice Department's complaint, the Colorado City Marshal's Office "routinely uses its enforcement authority to enforce the edicts and will of the FLDS; fails to protect non-FLDS individuals from victimization by FLDS individuals; refuses to cooperate with other law enforcement agencies' investigations of FLDS individuals; selectively enforces laws against non-FLDS; and uses its authority to facilitate unlawful evictions of non-FLDS, among other unlawful conduct."
The cities' water authority and power company also have "denied or unreasonably delayed providing water and electric service to non-FLDS residents," the complaint states. The municipalities also "refuse to issue building permits and prevent individuals from constructing or occupying existing housing because of the individuals' religious affiliation."
The Justice Department says those actions are in violation of the Fair Housing Act, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Crimes against non-FLDS residents include destroying crops of non-FLDS farms, vandalizing and trespassing on non-FLDS property and returning at least one underage bride to a home from which she had fled, the charges state.
"The marshal's office selectively enforces laws and regulations against non-FLDS individuals on the basis of religion," the complaint reads.
Police also selectively enforce trespassing and traffic laws against non-FLDS people but ignore the same violations when committed by FLDS members, according to the lawsuit.
"(Non-FLDS residents) experience the hardship and mental and physical stress resulting from the knowledge that the marshal's office will not come to their aid in their time of need," the lawsuit states.
An example of that hardship occurred in January 2012, when a woman fled her home after FLDS leaders demanded that she sever all contact with five of her six children.
"This woman believed … that the marshal's office would not come to her assistance to protect her parental rights if she complained about the FLDS edict separating mothers from their children," the lawsuit states.
The mother decided to flee with her six daughters "under the cover of darkness to safety outside of the cities," the complaint reads.
"The failure and refusal of the marshal's office to protect all citizens without regard to religion has given rise to an 'underground railroad,' comprised on non-FLDS members who provide safe havens and a means of egress for individuals abandoned by law enforcement," according to the lawsuit.
The marshal's office also has been used for surveillance and investigation of non-FLDS residents for more than 20 years, the charges state. Deputies have allegedly been providing FLDS leaders with information about emergency calls made to police and license plate checks on vehicles in the city.
Deputies have even been dispatched to confront people about their alleged disobedience to FLDS rules, according the lawsuit.
In 2001, Jeffs issued an edict that all domestic dogs would be banned from the twin cities. Less than a month later, deputies went to each home in the cities and ordered residents to turn over their dogs to them.
"The marshal's deputies then shot and killed the dogs in a slaughter pit a short distance from the cities," the lawsuit states.
In August 2008, a deputy responded to a property dispute between an FLDS member and a non-FLDS individual. Despite receiving information that the non-FLDS resident had rights to the property, the marshal sided with the FLDS member based on religious affiliation, according to the lawsuit.
"In announcing his decision, (the marshal) stated, '(The FLDS member) says this is his property, and we are going to honor him because he is a member of the church. … He has asked (the non-FLDS party) to leave, and that is where I am going to stand as chief of the police,'" the lawsuit states.
Utah and Arizona have decertified police officers for refusing to cooperate with state law enforcement efforts. Local sheriff's offices in both states have been working to address policing issues in the community.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff praised the civil rights complaint against Hildale and Colorado City, calling it a major step forward to bringing the rule of law to the border towns.
"(The Utah Attorney General's Office has) sought federal involvement for many years to address a number of civil rights violations against residents of those cities and surrounding communities," Shurtleff said in a statement. "We have offered our full cooperation and collaboration with the Department of Justice to aggressively investigate and address these complaints."
The Justice Department's lawsuit comes after legislatures in Utah and Arizona failed this year to pass bills aimed at abolishing the local police department that monitors the communities.
Contributing: The Associated Press