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Two fundamentalist Mormon towns waged a two-decade campaign of systematic discrimination against non-church members, a federal jury found Monday.
The towns, Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, negotiated an agreement requiring them to pay $1.6 million in damages, according to the Department of Justice, which filed the civil rights lawsuit in 2012.
As described in the department’s 19-page complaint, town officials operated as an instrument of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints and its jailed polygamist leader, Warren Jeffs, who was sentenced in 2011 to life in prison for sexually assaulting two teenage girls, one of whom he’d taken as a bride.
Last month, in a separate case, Jeff’s two brothers and nine other church members were arrested on charges of food stamp fraud and money laundering.
The Justice Department argued that town Marshals had acted as the “enforcement arm” of the fundamentalist church: non-church members had their crops burned, their property vandalized and, in one case, a runaway, underage bride was returned to a home from which she had fled, according to the complaint.
Non-believers were also denied (or delayed) water, power and building permits, and children were banned from a public park.
“A Marshal’s Deputy told the children that they could not play at the park and threatened them with arrest,” the complaint says.
The trial lasted seven weeks and the jury deliberated for four days, the Associated Press reported.
In a statement Monday, Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General Vanita Gupta said that the verdict "reaffirms that America guarantees all people equal protection and fair treatment, regardless of their religious beliefs. When communities deny their residents critical services simply because of where they worship, they violate our laws.”
Blake Hamilton, lawyer for the town of Hildale, told the AP that the towns were being persecuted.
"If this was any other community in America, this would not be happening at this level," Hamilton said after the verdict. "The scrutiny these communities have been under is just unprecedented."