Trial hinges on control of polygamous FLDS Church

It all comes down to this: Are a pair polygamous towns on the Utah-Arizona border controlled by the FLDS Church?

That’s the central question in a trial beginning this week in Phoenix. The trial is the culmination of a lawsuit by Ronald and Jinjer Cooke, who live in mostly polygamous Colorado City, Ariz., but who themselves are not members of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Cookes filed their lawsuit in 2010 and believe their civil rights were violated.

In a nutshell, the lawsuit is over a residential water hookup. The Cookes moved to the community in 2007 and in 2008 asked the city to turn on utilities including water, electricity and sewage. In 2010, the city finally ran electricity to the home but refused to connect the water. According to court documents, the Cookes believe the city refused — and therefore violated their civil rights — because they are not members of the FLDS Church.

Court documents filed by the Cookes’ attorneys claim that the city has done water hookups for more than 100 homes since 2008. The documents also state that the city had plenty of water for a new residential connection at the Cookes’ home. The result has been that the Cookes have had "to haul in culinary water on an every-other-day basis, which is particularly cumbersome" because Ronald Cooke is disabled.

The Cookes’ attorneys also have written that church and city personnel have generally harassed the family, threatening to throw them out of the home, dig up their yard and do other things.

Attorneys for Colorado City have denied the allegations. In court documents, they say the Cookes submitted incomplete utility applications, among other issues. They also have argued that the town had a water shortage, which impacted new water hookups and which was reflected in city policy.

The case strikes at the core of the FLDS Church’s relationship with the municipal government in Colorado City and Hildale. Past court filings in the case have included letters from city officials to imprisoned FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, as well as details about a surveillance network that is allegedly shared by both the government and the church.

The point, according to court documents, is that the towns are controlled by FLDS leaders, with municipal bosses enforcing the edicts of Jeffs above the law. Attorneys for Colorado City have denied those allegations and questioned the evidence attorneys for the Cookes and the government have filed so far.

It’s now up to a jury to decide whether the towns violated the Cookes’ rights and discriminated against them for religious reasons. Jury selection begins Tuesday morning, with opening arguments to follow.