Justice Department sues fundamentalist Mormon sect for discrimination

The US Justice Department alleges that the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), which controls most of the law enforcement and other government services in two adjacent communities, discriminates against those who are not members of the polygamous sect.

Douglas C. Pizac/AP
Hildale, Utah sits at the base of red rock cliff mountains with its sister city, Colorado City, Ariz. in the foreground. Most residents are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) run by the group’s jailed leader Warren Jeffs. The US Justice Department is suing both communities, claiming religious discrimination.
Trent Nelson/Salt Lake Tribune/AP
Polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs appearing in court in West Jordan, Utah, in 2010. Jeffs heads the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS).

The US Justice Department has filed suit against the adjoining towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, communities populated largely by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). 

The FLDS, which broke away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church), and actively practices polygamy, controls most of the law enforcement and other government services in those two communities in the Southwest. It is charged with discriminating against those who are not members of the FLDS.

The Justice Department complaint alleges that the cities’ joint police department “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,” according to a statement issued late Thursday. 

“The complaint also alleges that Colorado City, Hildale, Twin City Water Authority and Twin City Power have denied or unreasonably delayed providing water and electric service to non-FLDS residents, and that the municipalities refuse to issue building permits and prevent individuals from constructing or occupying existing housing because of the individuals’ religious affiliation,” according to the Justice Department statement.

The Mormon Church (LDS) officially abandoned polygamy (or the taking of “plural wives”) more than a century ago as a condition for Utah being granted statehood. But break-away groups numbering an estimated 30,000-50,000 individuals, most of them in Utah and other parts of the Southwest, have continued the practice.

“The Mormon Church excommunicates members who are publicly revealed as polygamists,” writes Debra Weyermann in a lengthy cover story in the current issue of High Country News magazine. “But it has refused to condemn the FLDS, even though its spokesmen have often been asked to do so.”

Ms. Weyermann, a former reporter for the Arizona Daily Star, is the author of “Answer Them Nothing: Bringing Down the Polygamous Empire of Warren Jeffs,” a book about the FLDS.

FLDS leader Jeffs is currently serving a life sentence in Texas for two counts of sexual assault of a child – girls ages 15 and 12 who were taken as his “brides” in a “spiritual marriage.”

Still, Jeffs (who, before his capture, was on the FBI's list of "Ten Most Wanted Fugitives") is widely believed to direct FLDS activities in Colorado City, Hildale, and elsewhere from his prison cell, including the assignment of wives.

"The cities' governments, including the Marshal's Office, have been deployed to carry out the will and dictates of FLDS leaders, particularly Warren Jeffs and the officials to whom he delegates authority," the Justice Department lawsuit states.

In 2008, 465 children were removed from the FLDS Yearning for Zion ranch near Eldorado, Texas, resulting in the biggest child custody case in US history. Authorities determined that at least several dozen underage girls already had children, were pregnant, or both. Following legal challenges and a period of foster care while child protection authorities investigated the cases, most of the children were returned to their families.

But in recent years, as many as several hundred boys – when they reached adolescence and might have been seen as competing with adult men for wives – were excommunicated and forced from the community, usually without much formal education or marketable skills.

Over the years, critics say, authorities in Utah have been less than aggressive in prosecuting suspected crimes committed by FLDS members – including those outlined in the Justice Department suit, misuse of public funds, and welfare fraud.

In 2006, the Mormon Church-owned Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City acknowledged that "the state's history, a conservative belief in free choice, and an unwillingness to stir up a hornet's nest in the national media have likely all contributed to the kid-glove approach lawmakers and law-enforcement officers have taken when dealing with polygamous communities."

Now, that laissez-faire attitude seems to be changing.

The federal complaint will finally bring the rule of law to the towns, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff told the Associated Press.

"We have made substantial progress during the past decade in bringing justice and security to the people living in the twin cities of Hildale and Colorado City," Mr. Shurtleff said, adding that his office has sought federal involvement for years.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne also lauded the action.

"Finding a solution to the illegal activities that have been occurring in Colorado City for decades has been one of my highest priorities," Horne said. "I remain committed to stopping the illegal conduct perpetrated by the FLDS church on non-church members."

Although the LDS and FLDS churches are distinct and very different, any public confusion may not be helpful to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who is Mormon.

His father, former Michigan governor and 1968 presidential candidate George Romney, was born in Mexico because the Romney family had moved there in the early 20th century to avoid federal prosecution for polygamy. Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather was a polygamist.

According to a Gallup poll released Thursday, 18 percent of Americans say they would not vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who happens to be a Mormon, virtually the same as the 17 percent who held this attitude in 1967 when George Romney began his failed run for the presidency.

“It is unclear how the current level of resistance to the idea of voting for a Mormon presidential candidate will affect the election,” writes Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport. “History shows that these types of attitudes in and of themselves are not an impediment to victory. For example, a May 1960 Gallup poll found that 21 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a well-qualified candidate who was a Catholic, but Catholic John F. Kennedy went on to win the presidency that fall.”

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