The U.S. Justice Department has filed a federal lawsuit against government officials in the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., alleging civil rights violations.
The complaint accuses the cities of carrying out the “will and dictates” of now-imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs, who is serving a prison term of life plus 20 years in Texas for raping two underage girls he wed in “spiritual marriages.”
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Most of the more than 8,800 residents of the twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, are members of Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which experts estimate has 10,000 followers in North America.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona, said the police agency serving the two towns had sometimes deployed deputies to confront people about their disobedience to sect rules or to tell them to report to the sect leadership.
Deputies also failed to arrest sect members who committed crimes against non-members such as destroying their crops or trespassing, the suit added.
Lindsay Whitehurts writes in The Salt Lake Tribune that the suit marks a departure for the federal government, which has until now steered clear of filing cases against FLDS members:
There are nearly two dozen allegations in the lawsuit, many involving the police agency the towns share. The earliest incident dates back to 2000, when attorneys say Colorado City town marshals confronted a sect member in an attempt to return an underage bride to her husband’s home after she fled.
Other accusations include police helping euthanize the town’s dogs at Jeffs’ order, keeping a woman in jail overnight on an inaccurate underage alcohol charge and threatening arrest of non-FLDS children if they continued to play at a city park.
The lawsuit also accuses town water and power utilities of refusing to provide housing permits and utility hookups to nonmembers or to allow them to move into homes.
“Religious freedom is a cherished principle of our democracy,” said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, in a news release. “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.”
No specific victims are named in the lawsuit. It seeks unspecified damages and injunctions against town officials.
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