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FLDS towns lose multi-million dollar discrimination lawsuit

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Posted at 11:58 AM, Mar 21, 2014
and last updated 2014-03-21 14:00:35-04

A federal jury in Phoenix handed down a multi-million dollar award to a couple who accused the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz., of discriminating against them.

The jury on Thursday awarded Ron and Jinjer Cooke $5.3 million, who sued the towns claiming they had been denied utilities and other government services because they were not members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church. The couple also claimed that as a result of their complaints to Arizona authorities, they were subjected to retaliation from the towns.

In November 2012, the Cooke family showed FOX 13 their living conditions: a makeshift water tank mounted on the back of a pickup in the front yard, power that had only been installed when another utility service came into town, and no sewer hookup.

"What I hope happens is there has to be some accountability and that the city can't discriminate like they do," Jinjer Cooke said at the time. "To me it shouldn't matter if it's their prophet going in for water, an FLDS member, or anybody that lives there."

During the trial, court records show that ex-members testified the FLDS Church often coordinated with the city in governmental affairs. Colorado City Mayor Joseph Allred refused to answer questions on the witness stand about it, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The Cooke's attorney, William Walker, said Friday that a judge set a deadline next week to discuss other matters in the case. The towns could not only be forced to provide water service, but comply with non-discriminatory policies. The federal judge who presided over the trial could go so far as to appoint someone to insure the towns do not discriminate in services, he told FOX 13.

"We are extremely disappointed," Hildale attorney Blake Hamilton said in an email Friday. "However, we respect the judicial process. Obviously, we will explore our appeal options."

In a statement, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne praised the ruling, vowing to "eradicate" discrimination in the towns.

"The defendants denied the Cookes water, sewer and electric service based on religion.  The Cookes have been without city water service for over five years.  The jury also found that the defendants intimidated and interfered with the Cookes’ housing rights.  The discrimination was because the Cookes are not members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, headed by Warren Jeffs. Jeffs is serving a life sentence plus 20 years in a Texas prison," he said.

"Discrimination based on religion will not be tolerated in this state."

The Cooke's lawsuit is not the only one facing Hildale and Colorado City, accusing them of discrimination. The U.S. Justice Department has leveled a discrimination lawsuit against the town governments, accusing them of acting as de-facto agents for the FLDS Church by denying non-members everything from police help to government services.

In court papers, the Justice Department and lawyers for Hildale and Colorado City are arguing over compelling answers from police officers in the towns about everything from underage marriages to FLDS business. The case has yet to go to trial.

In a separate lawsuit, the towns' insurance carrier is suing them to avoid paying damages should Hildale and Colorado City lose against the Justice Department. In a response filed in federal court in late-February, the towns urged the court to hold off until the Justice Department lawsuit is litigated.

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