Justice Dept. sues FLDS towns for religious discrimination

Police accused of enforcing Warren Jeffs' rules, failing to protect non-members

Published: Thursday, June 21 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Traffic moves along State road 59 on the Utah Arizona border near Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, AZ. May 18, 2006.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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."

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