SALT LAKE CITY – The police department should be disbanded in polygamous towns on the Utah-Arizona border found guilty of violating the constitutional rights of nonbelievers, the federal government recommended Friday in a new court filing.
Outside agencies such as local county sheriffs need to handle the duties because of the deep-rooted control of the town marshals by leaders of the polygamous sect that has led to entrenched patterns of the people's rights being trampled, U.S. Department of Justice attorneys said.
The government is also asking a judge to assign an independent monitor to watch over municipal staff in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, and have access to city meetings and documents.
Under the government's proposed punishment, Colorado City would also approve a plan to subdivide properties. The delay of that plan has prevented Utah from reassigning properties that are part of a church trust taken over by the state more than a decade ago after allegations of mismanagement.
A judge has scheduled a four-day hearing in October to address the issue. The towns will have an opportunity to respond to the suggested remedies ahead of that hearing.
A jury in Phoenix found in March that the towns denied non-sect followers of basic services such as police protection, building permits and water hookups.
Attorneys for the towns said the government is asking for unprecedented action that is unwarranted. They both plan to fight the recommendation.
"We're not talking about a pattern of civil rights violations like the deep South. We're not talking about people being raped and beaten," Hildale attorney Blake Hamilton said. "We're talking about people claiming religious discrimination."
Colorado City attorney Jeff Matura said no town officer has been decertified by Utah or Arizona state policing agencies for at least eight years.
"Yet the government wants to take away their jobs," Matura said. "The government is saying these officers should lose their jobs because of their religious beliefs. That's a pretty dangerous path to walk down."
The civil rights trial marked one of the boldest efforts by the government to confront what critics have long said was a corrupt regime in the two towns. The seven-week trial provided a rare glimpse into the communities that for years have been shrouded in secrecy and are distrustful of government and outsiders.
As part of a $1.6 million settlement, nine people in the communities will each receive $173,000. The towns and their water utility also will each pay a $55,000 civil penalty.
The towns denied the allegations during the trial and said the government was persecuting town officials because it disapproves of their religion.
The towns were accused of doing the bidding of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.
The civil rights trial is one of several fights being waged by the government to rein in church activities.
Eleven church members are facing fraud and money laundering charges on accusations of orchestrating a multimillion-dollar food stamp scheme that diverted at least $12 million worth of federal benefits. The defendants, which include high-ranking leader Lyle Jeffs, have pleaded not guilty.
The U.S. Labor Department has a separate action against a ranch with ties to the church over a pecan harvest in which prosecutors allege children were forced to work long hours with few breaks.
During the civil rights case, the Justice Department said town employees assisted the group's leader when he was a fugitive and took orders from church leaders about whom to appoint to government jobs.
They say local police ignored the food stamp fraud scheme and marriages between men and underage brides.
The jury found the marshal's office violated the rights of nonbelievers by breaking the First Amendment's promise that the government won't show preference to a particular faith and force religion upon people.
Jurors concluded that officers treated nonbelievers inequitably when providing police protection, arrested them without having probable cause and made unreasonable searches of their property.
One woman who was denied a water connection testified that she had to haul water to her home and take away sewage for six years. A former sect member said police ignored hundreds of complaints of vandalism on his horse property because he was no longer part of the church.