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Arizona Town Tied Local Government to Religion, 9th Circuit Says

A woman and two children walk into a local store in Colorado City, Arizona. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

The 9th Circuit recently affirmed a judgment against the town of Colorado City, Arizona for claims by the federal government that municipal entities excessively entangled with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS).

A Changing Community

The Short Creek Community, a religious settlement spread across the Utah-Arizona border, comprises most of the population of both Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah. FLDS members follow the teachings of Warren Jeffs, who has led the church since 2002 (despite being in prison since 2006). The community follows strict rules set out by Jeffs; women cover themselves from the neck down, and the community has garnered much attention as the largest polygamist community in the United States.

For almost 100 years, the Short Creek Community thrived in Colorado City and Hildale practically untouched. However, in the last ten years, the towns became more diverse, and businesses not connected to FLDS arrived -  including Colorado City’s first bar.

However, as more modern elements entered the community, it turns out the municipal government was not exactly on board.

Municipality Acted as an “Arm of the Church”

The United States government brought suit against Colorado City’s and Hildale’s municipal governments and utility providers in 2012, alleging a pattern of discrimination against residents who were not members of FLDS. It also accused the Colorado City Marshal’s Office of aiding Warren Jeffs when he became a wanted fugitive in the early 2000s. Jeffs is currently serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting underage girls whom he considered his “brides.”

A 44-day jury trial resulted in a verdict holding both cities discriminated against non-FLDS residents in violation of the Fair Housing Act, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and Title III of the Civil Rights Act.

Arguments on Appeal

The appeal centered around the interpretation of 34 U.S.C. §12601, which prohibits any governmental authority from engaging in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives people of their constitutional rights. The district court interpreted §12601 to allow for liability under the doctrine of respondeat superior, rejecting the argument that the law required the United States to prove they instituted an official policy violating residents’ freedom of religion.

Finding the district court correctly concluded that an official policy was not necessary to violate §12601, the court of appeals affirmed. Along with the court-appointed monitoring of local governance that began in 2017, hopefully this conclusion will lead to a community where everyone is treated equally no matter their religious views.

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