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Utah attorney dealing with FLDS discrimination in Utah: who is discriminating against whom?

February 6, 2014

While much of the Utah’s legal news surrounding constitutionality, equal rights and civil liberties is connected to the hot-button issue of same-sex marriage, one couple in Colorado City/Hilldale (which sits on the border between Arizona and Utah) have filed a different kind of suit with each state. The Chicago Tribune reports that Ron and Jinger Cooke, and their Utah attorney, attest that the local water district and power companies have violated their civil rights.

The Cookes are claiming that discrimination exists within the community that occupies the twin-border towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hilldale, Utah as they have experienced refusal for water and utility services based on their non-membership in the local sect. Specifically, their Utah attorney contends in the court papers, that the jailed leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Warren Jeffs, controls the adjoining towns and has ordered city leaders, officials and departments to discriminate against outsiders. The Cooke’s lawyer argues that evidence of discrimination against the couple is contained within letters sent to Jeffs by city officials.

The Colorado City/Hilldale community is small, with only about 7,500 residents in total, and most of them are members of the FLDS Church – whose sect leader has been imprisoned since 2011. Whether he remains the leader in control of the group is a matter hotly debated among interested parties, but this isn’t the first time a suit like this has been filed against the community. In 2012, a federal lawsuit made similar allegations. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a religious discrimination lawsuit accusing the towns of carrying out Jeffs’ “will and dictates” and said that the police agency for the towns had sent deputies to confront people about disobedience to sect rules. The U.S. government also accused the cities of refusing to issue building permits to non-sect members. Water and electric utilities were also allegedly delayed or refused to those people. The 2012 lawsuit is still proceeding in the U.S. district court in Arizona.

The Cookes themselves face unique hardship, their Utah lawyer reports. Because Mr. Cooke is disabled and because they have been afforded no water utilities to their home, the couple is forced to haul water into their home every few days, a task which is exceptionally cumbersome given Mr. Cooke’s disability. The cities’ attorneys have denied the discrimination allegations, and cite mistakes in applications for utility services as the reason for the delay in service provision to the Cooke’s home. The cities’ attorneys couldn’t be reached for comment, and the Cooke’s Utah lawyer did not provide comment on the story, either.

The civil rights trial is expected to last about two months in the district court and represents a vast ideological departure from much of the legal debate currently circulating in Utah. While the circumstances are worlds apart, the heart of the matter is really very similar: the Cookes, like many other couples in Utah, want to be treated equally under the law.

 

 

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