PHOENIX – Two polygamous towns in Arizona and Utah are corrupt communities where people are spied on and routinely denied basic services as a way to root out non-believers, federal lawyers said Wednesday during opening statements in a discrimination trial.
An attorney for one of the towns, Colorado City, Arizona, countered that the case was filed because the government finds the dominant religion in the towns to be distasteful and wants it eradicated.
"Who is discriminating against who?" attorney Jeff Matura asked jurors.
The case marks one of the boldest efforts by the government to confront what critics have said is a corrupt regime in Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, where the dominant religion is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The sect broke away from mainstream Mormonism when the religion disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.
The trial will focus on allegations that the towns systematically denied housing, water services and police protection to people who do not adhere to polygamous-driven beliefs.
U.S. Justice Department lawyers contended in their opening statement that both towns remain beholden to sect leader Warren Jeffs, even as he serves a life sentence in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered wives.
The lawyers also depicted the church's security operation and local police as paranoid entities that work in lockstep and violate the civil rights of non-believers.
Attorney Jessica Clark described how security officers have spied on people with cameras placed around Colorado City and Hildale, and staff members have been positioned on the outskirts of the towns to keep an eye on people arriving.
She said the city cites a water shortage while denying building permits to non-believers but allows other buildings to be constructed for believers.
"All the entities work together seemingly for the benefits of FLDS and its leaders," Clark said of the church.
The communities deny the allegations and say religion isn't a motivating factor in decisions.
Lawyers for the towns tried unsuccessfully to get a judge to bar evidence of polygamy, underage marriage and church teachings.
Jeffs is not in the courtroom, but his presence loomed over the proceedings. The government says city officials assisted him while he was a fugitive and still follow his directives. A judge has said the Justice Department has evidence suggesting officers dropped off packages, letters and other items for Jeffs while he was a fugitive.
"His control of the cities and police continues today," Clark said.
Matura told jurors the U.S. Justice Department case was based on the false assumptions that religious people can't function properly in government jobs and that everyone who works for the towns is a member of the sect.
Dowayne Barlow, a former aide to Bishop Lyle Jeffs, a sect leader and brother of Warren Jeffs, later testified that church leaders selected who would serve as police officers and in government leadership posts in the two towns.
Testifying for the Justice Department, Barlow said employees of the communities helped send packages of money and letters to Warren Jeffs while he was sought on charges of arranging marriages between girls and older men.
Experts believe the trial will provide a rare glimpse into towns that for decades have been shrouded in secrecy and are distrustful of government and outsiders.
Some witnesses are expected to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, as they did during depositions.
The federal government wants a ruling that the towns have violated a fair housing law, and it seeks unspecified changes to prevent discrimination.