Defense begins case in trial against polygamous towns
PHOENIX (AP) — The mayor of a polygamous town in Utah accused of functioning as an arm of a polygamous church said Wednesday that he has never discriminated based on religion.
Hildale Mayor Philip Barlow made the statement during a day of testimony in a federal civil rights trial against his town and Colorado City, Arizona. Lawyers for both cities are fighting allegations made by the U.S. Justice Department that the cities discriminate against people who aren’t members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints by denying them housing, water services and police protection.
“I represent every citizen of that town. I don’t go on the City Council for my own agenda,” said Barlow, who was the first witness to be called by the towns. “I made the decision I wasn’t going to be influenced. I want to do the right thing. I feel like I have.”
Police officers are accused of failing to investigate crimes against nonbelievers and assisting leader Warren Jeffs while he was a fugitive on charges of arranging marriages between girls and older men.
The communities deny the allegations and say religion isn’t a motivating factor in their decisions. They believe the government is discriminating against them based on their religion.
The case marks one of the boldest efforts by the government to confront what critics have said was a corrupt regime in both towns.
Barlow, who served on the Hildale City Council before being appointed mayor in 2011, said church leaders never approached him about influencing who should serve in city government.
Prosecutors, however, tried to get Barlow to admit the religion played a role in decisions involving city business. Justice Department attorney Sean Keveney pointed to notes from a closed 2006 executive session of Hildale city officials that occurred before Barlow was part of the council. According to the record, officials proposed Barlow as a candidate for a City Council vacancy even though there was another person with better professional credentials. Officials said they needed someone who could “continue the vision of past pioneers.”
When asked if that was a form of discrimination, Barlow said “not necessarily in this scenario.”
Barlow did acknowledge that he personally opposed selling parts of a communal land trust that was once run by the church to non-FLDS church members. But he said church leaders did not tell him to oppose efforts to sell the land. The trust was once run by polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs but was seized by the state of Utah in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by church leaders. The fund is now controlled by the state and controls the housing within the community.