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2 FLDS Towns Set To Face Religious Discrimination Trial


A federal civil rights trial this week examines claims of religious discrimination. Two towns on the border between Arizona and Utah are accused of discriminating against people who are not members of a particular church. It's the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as FLDS. Jude Joffe-Block reports from our member station KJZZ in Phoenix.

JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: The rural towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, are a single community divided by the state border. Fewer than 10,000 people live there. The majority belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is a polygamist sect. The Justice Department will be trying to prove the towns act as arms of the church and make it hard for outsiders to live there. One of their witnesses is Colorado City resident Isaac Wyler.

ISAAC WYLER: ...And so it's very difficult if you're non-FLDS, for instance, to get a simple water hook-up that an FLDS member could get in a heartbeat.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Wyler, who's 50, grew up in the FLDS church in a polygamist family. But in the late 1990s, he didn't like the direction the church was going.

WYLER: It seemed like we was headed towards really young marriages, and that really bothered me.

JOFFE-BLOCK: The church kicked Wyler out, but he refused to leave town. He now works for the land trust, which is at odds with the church. He says that's caused the local police - called marshals - to harass him and arrest him for trespassing. As part of the case, the Justice Department will try to prove the town marshals are loyal to their religion, not the law, and allowed illegal church practices, including marriages of underage girls to adult men.

WYLER: The marshals department, the cities - they're all owned by the church. They're all just a part of the church anyway.

JEFF MATURA: The towns don't deny there used to be problems.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Jeff Matura's the attorney defending Colorado City. He says there were issues with the police years ago. But they were resolved, and the problem marshals are long gone. Matura argues there's an ulterior motive behind the government's lawsuit.

MATURA: It really has turned into an effort by the federal government to eradicate a religion - the FLDS church - that it disapproves of.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Over Matura's objections, the Justice Department is expected to present evidence about Warren Jeffs, an FLDS leader who was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two girls he took as brides. The federal government alleges the marshals helped Jeffs when he was a fugitive, and that Jeffs continues to run the church and the town from his prison cell. To win, the Justice Department must convince the jury more than just a few rogue town officials acted as arms of the church, and there was a pattern of discrimination. Notre Dame Law professor Richard Garnett says this case gets to the core of what the First Amendment is about - preventing government from establishing an official religion.

RICHARD GARNETT: This isn't going to be a matter of, you know, simply, like, how many Christmas carols were sung at the school holiday production. This is going to be much more about intermixing of power.

JOFFE-BLOCK: If the federal government is successful, it will seek monetary damages for victims of discrimination, and town reforms which could include placing some agencies in court receivership. For NPR News, I'm Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.