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COLUMNISTS

Guest Editorial: Colorado City deserves this ruling

The Arizona Republic
March 9
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A jury gets it — a polygamous cult cannot hide its offenses under a cloak of religion.

A federal civil rights conviction against the polygamous communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, is about justice, not religion — despite what lawyers for the convicted say.

It’s about the excesses of a cult that grew powerful enough to control the lives of people in ways that seem unimaginable.

Known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, this cult is not connected with the Mormon Church.

The FLDS’ self-proclaimed “prophet” is Warren Jeffs, who is in prison for sexually assaulting underage girls he took as “spiritual wives.”

Polygamy is considered the way to salvation in the FLDS, and young brides are prized. Other cult members have been prosecuted for abusing children.

In addition to criminal prosecutions, efforts to rein in the abuses of this secretive group have included placing much of cult-controlled property under an independent trustee.

In Utah, a grand jury indicted church leaders for food-stamp fraud. The U.S. Labor Department alleges that a ranch with ties to the FLDS forced children to work long hours with few breaks.

In the civil-rights case just adjudicated, a federal jury found that public officials acted as an enforcement arm of the cult and violated the rights of those who did not belong to the group.

The verdict awarding $2.2 million was reduced to $1.6 million in a negotiated settlement.

At the very least, the judge should disband the Colorado City Marshal’s Office, which the jury found had violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and arrests without probable cause, as well as the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection under the law.

Witnesses testified that the marshal was the enforcer of cult edicts against non-members and members who had been excommunicated.

In addition, Colorado City, Hildale and the Twin City Water Authority violated the Fair Housing Act, the jury found. Again, the offenses were committed in the name of enforcing cult supremacy.

One woman testified that she was denied a water connection to her home, which meant she had to haul water and take away sewage for six years.

“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.

Yet former cult member Isaac Wyler said discrimination and harassment continued during the government’s actions. Wyler hopes the judge will restructure the local government to prevent the cult from continuing to use it to discriminate against non-members.

Colorado City attorney Jeff Matura has portrayed the effort to bring justice to the twin cities as persecution based on disapproval of the FLDS' religious beliefs.

That’s a desperate attempt to capitalize on the tension between believers and non-believers in a nation that protects both.

It’s a legitimate debate. But that’s not what this is about.

Warren Jeffs’ band of polygamists do not get to hide their offenses under a cloak of religion. Religious freedom does not give anyone permission to break the law or ignore the Constitution.

This civil-rights verdict is another step toward bringing justice to a remote and easily ignored part of the state where human rights abuses are systematic and intentional.