Opening arguments are scheduled Wednesday at a trial over allegations that two isolated towns on the Arizona-Utah line serve as the enforcement arm of a polygamous religious sect and discriminate against nonbelievers.
The trial is expected to reveal the inner workings of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, and examine allegations that the towns systematically denied housing, water services and police protection on the basis of 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, where the dominant religion is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The sect broke away from mainstream Mormonism when the religion disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.
The U.S. Justice Department alleges in its lawsuit that town officials seized property from nonmembers, denied them water services and prevented them from building homes.
Police officers are accused of assisting sect leader Warren Jeffs while he was a fugitive on charges of arranging marriages between girls and older men.
The government also says police failed to investigate crimes against nonbelievers. For example, the lawsuit said officers refused to act on nonbelievers' trespassing complaints against sect members.
The communities deny the allegations and say religion isn't a motivating factor in their decisions. They tried unsuccessfully to get a judge to bar evidence of polygamy, underage marriage and church teachings.
Experts believe the trial will provide a rare glimpse into towns that for decades have been shrouded in secrecy and are distrustful of government and outsiders.
Some witnesses in the case are expected to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during depositions, as they did during their depositions.
A judge has said the Justice Department has evidence suggesting officers dropped off packages, letters and other items for Jeffs while he was a fugitive.
The federal government is seeking a ruling that the towns have violated a fair housing law and sought unspecified changes to prevent future discrimination.
A police-practices expert for the Justice Department has suggested disbanding the Colorado City Marshal's Office and handing over its duties to local sheriff's offices.