SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Authorities in a pair of polygamous Utah-Arizona border towns have supported a campaign of intimidation against the unfaithful, denying them housing and municipal services and allowing members of the dominant religious sect to destroy their crops and property, the U.S. Justice Department said in a lawsuit.
The federal civil rights case was filed Thursday against the towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where most residents are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, run by the group's jailed leader Warren Jeffs.
Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas after convictions on child sex and bigamy charges, but is said to still maintain control of the communities from behind bars.
According to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Arizona, city leaders and law enforcement in the two towns have for decades served at Jeffs' pleasure while ignoring the constitutional rights of residents who aren't FLDS followers.
"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 lawsuit states. "The Marshal's Office has inappropriately used its state-granted law enforcement authority to enforce the edicts of the FLDS, to the detriment of non-FLDS members."
In one case of law enforcement misconduct, according to the suit, officers rounded up all dogs and shot them in a "slaughter pit" outside town on specific orders from Jeffs.
The suit also says officers regularly allow sect members to victimize non-members by destroying their crops, vandalizing property and trespassing.
Federal officials also say officers have made traffic stops and arrests without cause, kept underage brides from running away and prevented children of non-FLDS members from using a public playground.
The lawsuit accuses city departments of refusing to provide electricity or water service to non-members.
"There's nothing to support the allegation that non-FLDS members are treated differently," attorney Blake Hamilton told The Associated on Thursday. Hamilton represents Hildale and the Marshal's Office that serves both towns.
Hamilton said the towns ran out of water for new users, but the federal lawsuit insists "there is no water shortage."
He said Justice Department lawyers threatened a lawsuit in December when they met with him and another attorney representing Colorado City.
"DOJ asked us to dismantle a community," Hamilton said.
Jeffs is imprisoned in Texas after being found guilty last year of sexually assaulting two of his two dozen underage brides.
His conviction came after an April 2008 raid of the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas, which Jeffs had ordered his followers to build.
The raid led to a chaotic roundup of 400 children living at the secretive location in what became one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history. All of the children were eventually returned but 11 men — including Jeffs and other high-ranking FLDS lieutenants — were arrested on charges of sexual assault or bigamy and later convicted.
The federal lawsuit accuses the towns of violating the federal Fair Housing Act by depriving non-sect members of their constitutional rights. It seeks unspecified damages for victims, penalties levied against the towns, and court orders prohibiting officials from harassing residents who were never FLDS members, left the sect on their own or were excommunicated.
It says the defendants "have acted in concert with FLDS leadership to deny non-FLDS individuals housing, police protection, and access to public space and services."
Jeff Matura, a lawyer for Colorado City, denied the allegations.
"We'll have our day in court," Matura said Thursday, adding that town utilities don't discriminate against anyone. "There's not a question on the application that says, 'What's your religion?'"
The federal complaint will finally bring the rule of law to the towns, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said.
"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," 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."
The Justice Department's lawsuit is similar to one pending in federal court in Arizona that alleges some of the same violations of the Fair Housing Act by the defendants. The complaint was filed by a former FLDS member and his wife, and the Arizona Attorney General's Office.
The DOJ suit also comes after Legislatures in Utah and Arizona failed this year to pass bills aimed at abolishing the towns' Marshal's Office.
The FLDS practices polygamy, a legacy of early Mormon church teachings that held plural marriage brought exaltation in heaven.
However, the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice in 1890 as a condition of Utah's statehood and ex-communicates members who still engage in polygamy.
AP reporter Felicia Fonseca contributed to this report from Flagstaff, Ariz.; Paul Weber contributed from San Antonio, Texas.