TUCSON — A major trial begins this week in Phoenix’s federal courthouse against two towns on the Arizona-Utah border. The towns are where the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is based.
Known by the initials FLDS, the church is a polygamous sect. In this lawsuit, the United States Department of Justice is accusing the remote towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, of discriminating against FLDS church outsiders.
This isn’t the first time these claims have been heard in federal court. Two years ago Tucson attorney Bill Walker — along with the Arizona Attorney General's Office — won a case against the towns that made some of the same claims.
Walker’s law practice in Tucson is nearly an eight hour drive to Colorado City and Hildale, which are a single community split by the Arizona-Utah border. But over the years the Tucson lawyer has been involved in a few major cases there involving the FLDS church.
Walker’s involvement began some 14 years ago when a former client told him about a young woman named Ruth Stubbs from Hildale who needed legal help. She grew up in the FLDS church and was forced into a polygamous marriage when she was just 16.
“Ruth Stubbs had run from that community, and run from her husband — her celestial husband that she was forced into marriage with,” Walker said during in an interview in his Tucson office. “The church was trying to fund her husband getting the children back so they could bring them back into that community, and she had no lawyer.”
Walker took on the case and won Stubbs custody of her kids. Later, Stubbs’ former husband was prosecuted by the state of Utah for bigamy and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.
Then, years later, Walker heard about Ron and Jinjer Cooke. The couple moved up to Colorado City from Phoenix with their children, but were not able to get a water hook up and a sewer connection. The situation was particularly tough because Ron Cooke was disabled from a truck accident.
Walker argued in court that the towns denied Cookes utilities because they weren’t FLDS church members. The church leadership had a known policy of wanting to rid the community of so-called “apostates” or non-church members.
Walker said it was amazing that the Cookes stayed put and fought for their rights.
“Everybody thought they would just leave,” Walker said. “And that is what the FLDS wanted them to do, is leave. They wanted to drive them out.”
Walker argued the towns acted on behalf of the church, and discriminated on the basis of religion and disability in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The case was combined with a related Arizona Attorney General suit. A jury ruled in the Cookes’ favor in 2014.
“[The Cookes] finally won, and won a huge case in Phoenix district court, and now they are much happier,” Walker said.
The Cookes got utilities and a financial settlement. Some of the same evidence from the Cookes’ case is part of the Department of Justice’s lawsuit, which goes to trial this week in Phoenix.
Walker is involved in the upcoming Justice Department case as well, and represents several witnesses who may be called to testify for the federal government, including the Cookes.
“The DOJ case is going after a much bigger fish. What they want to do is to say the entire community is corrupt,” Walker said.
The Justice Department alleges the town police act as arms of the church, and the towns engaged in a pattern and practice of religious discrimination against non-FLDS members.
“They have to do it under federal statutes that involve groups of people as opposed to one individual person. But make no mistake about it, the effect of it will be much greater if they can win,” Walker said.
If the jury sides with the Justice Department, the federal government could seek major reforms to town policies, including putting some town agencies in court receivership.
"The people I represent are hopeful that there will be a monumental change and the judge will order the type of relief that will put the cities' activities under the direction of someone who is neutral and can report back to the judge if there is any additional discrimination," Walker said.
Jury selection is supposed to wrap up Tuesday afternoon, and opening statements are scheduled for Wednesday.
The defense lawyers for the towns argue there is no pattern of discrimination on religious grounds, and problems with the police have already been fixed.
Walker will continue being involved in matters involving Colorado City and Hildale since he recently began representing the land trust there. The trust used to be controlled by the church, but a judge took it out of the church’s hands and put it in receivership several years ago.
In his 37-year law career, Walker has worked on a number of cases that deal with the intersection of religious freedom and the law. At times he has been on the other side, defending religious freedom from government intervention.
In the 1980s he defended a Nogales, Ariz., reverend involved in the Sanctuary Movement. The reverend was among several religious leaders who faced federal criminal charges for helping to smuggle Central Americans fleeing violence into the U.S.
“To me, the test is — is it religious freedom to protect people in their religion? Or is it religious freedom to hurt other people?” Walker said. "If people claim religious freedom in order to hurt other people, that's not religion."
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