National / U.S. News

Trial begins against polygamous towns in discrimination case

Hildale, Utah mayor Phillip Barlow, center, arrives at the Sandra Day O'Connor United States District Court where a federal civil rights trial against the polygamous towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., which are located on the Arizona-Utah border, is set to begin, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

Hildale, Utah mayor Phillip Barlow, center, arrives at the Sandra Day O’Connor United States District Court where a federal civil rights trial against the polygamous towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., which are located on the Arizona-Utah border, is set to begin, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

PHOENIX (AP) — The federal government on Wednesday opened a trial involving two polygamous towns in Arizona and Utah by portraying the communities as a corrupt operation where people are spied on and routinely denied basic services as a way to root out non-believers.

U.S. Justice Department lawyers also contended in their opening statement that Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, remain beholden to leader Warren Jeffs as he serves a life sentence in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered wives.

The case marks one of the boldest efforts by the government to confront what critics have said is a corrupt regime in both towns where the dominant religion is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The sect broke away from mainstream Mormonism when the religion disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.

The trial will focus on allegations that the towns systematically denied housing, water services and police protection to people who do not adhere to polygamous-driven beliefs.

The town’s lawyers are expected to deliver their opening statement to the jury later in the day.

The communities deny the allegations and say religion isn’t a motivating factor in decisions. Lawyers for the towns tried unsuccessfully to get a judge to bar evidence of polygamy, underage marriage and church teachings.

Government lawyers on Wednesday depicted the church’s security operation and local police as paranoid entities that work in lockstep and violate the civil rights of non-believers.

Attorney Jessica Clark described how church security officers spy on people with cameras placed around the towns and position staff on the outskirts of Colorado City and Hildale to keep an eye on people arriving.

She said the city denies building permits to non-believers, citing a water shortage, but allows other buildings to be constructed for believers.

“All the entities work together seemingly for the benefits of FLDS and its leaders,” Clark said.

Jeffs is not in the courtroom, but his presence loomed over the proceedings. The government says city officials assisted him while he was a fugitive and still follow his directives. A judge has said the Justice Department has evidence suggesting officers dropped off packages, letters and other items for Jeffs while he was a fugitive.

“His control of the cities and police continues today,” Clark said.

Experts believe the trial will provide a rare glimpse into towns that for decades have been shrouded in secrecy and are distrustful of government and outsiders.

Some witnesses in the case are expected to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, as they did during their depositions.

The federal government wants a ruling that the towns have violated a fair housing law, and it seeks unspecified changes to prevent discrimination.

 

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