Polygamous Fundamentalist Mormon Towns Found Guilty of Denying Civil Rights of Nonbelievers

Residents watch rescuers search along the Short Creek after a flash flood in Hildale, Utah, September 15, 2015. Hildale and the town of Colorado City, Arizona, were found guilty of discriminating against nonbelieving residents on Monday by a jury in a federal civil rights case. David Becker/Reuters

A weeks-long trial in Phoenix ended on Monday with a jury awarding $2.2 million to six residents of two polygamous southwestern towns at the Utah-Arizona border, after the towns were found violating the civil rights of non-believers for more than two decades.

The towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, were accused of denying services to residents who were not part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a radical offshoot of Mormonism. Services denied to nonbelieving residents included police protection, building permits and water connections, according to the jury. Among the residents who sought damages are former members who had left the church.

Six residents of the towns brought the case forward and will be awarded $2.2 million in damages, although the two towns will only pay $1.6 million as part of their settlement deal, as negotiations were made by lawyers prior to the settlement. A Phoenix jury of seven men and five women deliberated the case for four days at the end of a seven-week federal trial. The civil rights lawsuit was filed by the Department of Justice in 2012.

The Justice Department said on Monday that a jury found the Colorado City Marshal's Office, the joint police department for the cities, "operated as an arm of the FLDS church in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment."

Jessica Clarke, an attorney for the Department of Justice, told jurors in her opening statements that the town's' non-believing residents were denied "some of the most basic rights…freedom to live in a city governed by the laws of the land, not by the laws of religion." One resident testified that for the past six years she had to carry water to her home and take sewage out as she wasn't allowed to have a water connection.

The Justice Department said during the trial that local police ignored marriages between underage girls and adult men, and gave people government jobs based on orders from church leaders. The jury found that non-believers were not treated equally by the marshal's office, were arrested without probable cause and underwent "unreasonable" searches on their property.

"Today's verdict reaffirms that America guarantees all people equal protection and fair treatment, regardless of their religious beliefs," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

"When communities deny their residents critical services simply because of where they worship, they violate our laws and threaten the defining values of religious freedom and tolerance that are the foundation of our country," said Gupta.

While monetary damages have been decided, the judge still needs to decide if there will be any additional punishments in the case. It's possible that federal officials could ask the Colorado City Marshal's Office to suspend its activities, which would then be taken over by local sheriffs, the AP reports.

"For there ever to be a decent community, there's got to be new faces, new control," said Richard Holm, a plaintiff in the case who the AP reports lives in the area despite leaving the sect 13 years ago.

Jeff Matura, a lawyer for Colorado City, said the federal government was "trying to eradicate" the religion. Hildale's lawyer, Blake Hamilton, told the AP that "if this was any other community in America, this would not be happening at this level."

"The scrutiny these communities have been under is just unprecedented," said Hamilton.