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PHOENIX — Twelve jurors filed into a Phoenix courtroom on Wednesday morning to hear opening statements in a civil rights trial against twin cities on the Utah-Arizona border that were settled by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).
The U.S. Department of Justice is accusing the cities of Colorado City, Ariz. and Hildale, Utah of being controlled by the church and discriminating against church outsiders. But the lawyers defending the cities told jurors the federal government is itself discriminating against an unpopular religion, and asked jurors to question “who is discriminating against who.”
Justice Department attorney Jessica Clarke immediately linked this trial to Warren Jeffs, the notorious leader of the FLDS church who was convicted in Texas for child sexual assault. Before his conviction, Jeffs married underage girls and arranged the marriages of other underage girls to adult men. Jeffs is considered a prophet in the FLDS church.
Clarke told the jury in her opening statement they would “hear a lot” about Warren Jeffs and his brother Lyle Jeffs, a church bishop, “and the control these men have over city officials and police officers.”
She promised the jury they would also hear about officials and city police who are supposed to serve everybody “choosing instead to protect and serve Warren Jeffs and Lyle Jeffs and their people.”
Clarke explained how in 2004 Jeffs expelled 21 men from the church who posed any threat to him. She quoted from his speech, in which he said, “Today I have been sent by the Lord to name names of men who have lost priesthood and brand them apostates.”
Due to that order, the men were forced to leave their homes and the community. They were stripped of their wives and children. Among those who were expelled that day were two town officials — a mayor and a city councilman — who then resigned their civic posts.
Clarke argued that Jeffs then chose their successors. She told the jury that city officials not only allowed Jeffs to control their personal lives, but allowed the church to be “intertwined” with city government.
She said the church wanted to stop non-FLDS families from coming to live in the community, and conspired with the cities to use a water shortage as a pretext to deny church outsiders water hook ups.
Clarke showed the jurors a timeline of how Jeffs was charged with sexual abuse in 2005 and then went on the run. In 2006 he was one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives. She promised jurors they would hear testimony about how officers in the Colorado City-Hildale Marshal’s Office remained loyal to Jeffs when he was a fugitive, and though they knew how to communicate with Jeffs, did not reveal that to outside law enforcement.
When it was time for the defense lawyers for Colorado City and Hildale to address the jurors, they said none of what they had just learned about Jeffs going to prison mattered for this case. They told jurors there had been a problem with the marshals, but the cities had addressed it, and those officers were no longer on the force.
Hildale’s lawyer Blake Hamilton told the jury the federal government wants to make this trial about the FLDS church and Warren Jeffs, because it can’t prove its claims against the actual defendants — the cities.
Hamilton reminded the jury he does not represent Warren Jeffs or the FLDS church.
“I can’t and I won’t defend their actions here,” Hamilton said. “The federal government wants you to be so appalled that you forget what this case is about.”
His partner Jeff Matura, who defends Colorado City, argued the Justice Department’s claims of religious discrimination don’t make sense since some current town officials — including the Hildale mayor and chief of the Colorado City-Hildale Marshal’s Office — are not FLDS church members themselves.
Matura argued the actual discrimination going on in this case is the federal government discriminating against an unpopular religion and city officials who practice that religion. He reminded the jury that freedom of religion in this country includes the FLDS church.
“You will have a unique opportunity to tell the federal government ‘No,’” Matura told the jury. “That it is not OK to persecute on the basis of religion.”
After opening arguments the Justice Department called its first witness, Dowayne Barlow, a former FLDS member who was previously an assistant to the church bishop, Lyle Jeffs.
Barlow gave firsthand accounts of meetings he attended in which church leaders directed city officials on policy matters, and decided which church members to appoint to posts in local government and the marshal’s office.
Barlow described a community in which church-city relations were so intermingled that several city officials were members of the church’s private security force, which used public cameras to spy on residents to see if they were associating with so-called apostates.
He described how certain men would be “handled” by the church if there was any tension with church leadership, and that meant they would be expelled from the community and would lose their wives and children. At one point, Justice Department lawyer Sean Keveney asked Barlow to explain what that process means for the individual.
“It is one of the hardest experiences you will ever go through,” Barlow said, his voice breaking. “It’s tough on your children, tough on you, tough on our wives. I can tell you the grave would be a preferred place.”