Mormon public officials in two polygamous towns in Arizona and Utah have been found guilty of discriminating against non-believers by denying them access to water, electricity, housing and policing.
The US Department of Justice accused the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a splinter group from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of taking control of water and power services in the neighboring towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, and then neglecting the needs of non-believers.
The DOJ also noted that FLDS, through a church trust, owned almost all of the housing in the twin towns, with police acting as its “enforcement arm,” the Phoenix New Times reported.
One woman told the court how she had had to seek her own water supply and deal with her own sewage over a six year period, while another resident said that he had lodged hundreds of vandalism complaints that were ignored by the town’s police because he was no longer a church member, CBS5 reported.
Jessica Clarke, an attorney with DoJ, described how non followers had had their “most basic rights” breached and been denied the “freedom to live in a city governed by the laws of the land, not by the laws of religion.”
Jeff Matura, who represented Colorado City, accused the federal government of “trying to eradicate” a religion it did not approve of.
Following a trial lasting seven weeks, the jury ruled in the DOJ’s favor after four days of deliberations, awarding $2.2 million in damages to six residents, although lawyers for the two towns have negotiated a deal that will see only $1.6 million paid out.
It is now expected that the various public offices and authorities in the towns will be disbanded and new ones formed in their place, free of religious control.
The verdict is the latest in a string of court cases and controversies involving FLDS, which is largely controlled by the Jeffs family. One former member of the FLDS described the sect as “a criminal organization that could give the Mafia lessons.”
Church leaders were charged with fraudulently claiming money from a government food stamp program and money laundering in February.
Warren Jeffs, who is considered by believers to be a “prophet,” took the reins of the church in 2002, but was sentenced to life in prison in 2007 for sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15.