“Dear Uncle Warren, I rejoice in the peace that comes over me when I follow the directives you sent to me,” wrote Fred Barlow.
That seems like a loving letter from uncle to nephew, but it’s something slightly more sinister: “Warren” is Warren Jeffs, the disgraced pedophiliac prophet of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). And Barlow, who signed the letter “your servant,” wrote it during his tenure as the police chief of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The two border towns are collectively known as the Short Creek community, and have served as a FLDS stronghold for decades.
Barlow’s conduct is now on trial. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued Short Creek officials last year for allegedly running the community as a theocracy; the trial began this week. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, DOJ attorney Jessica Clarke told jurors that Barlow and other city officials repeatedly prioritized Jeffs’ edicts over their responsibility to enforce secular law.
In the process, Clarke asserted, they violated the civil rights of non-FLDS residents.
“The police officers in these towns are treading on these basic freedoms,” she said. “They're doing it for the benefit of one man: Warren Jeffs.”
The DOJ has accused Barlow and others of arresting individuals based on Jeffs’ orders, and of using their elected positions to cut off or deny utilities to anyone out of favor with FLDS leadership. They also allegedly refused to investigate repeated incidents of adult men marrying underage girls, and city marshals frequently doubled as church security.
Their attorneys appear to have raised a religious freedom defense in response to the DOJ’s allegations.
“The facts will show the federal government wants to eradicate this religion because it finds it distasteful,” Colorado City’s attorney, Jeff Matura, said. He also called the government’s witnesses “liars” and added, “As the federal government puts on its case, periodically ask yourself who is discriminating against who.”
Another Colorado City attorney, Blake Hamilton, similarly accused the DOJ of “targeting people because they’re different” and told jurors that some defense witnesses intend to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights in response to questioning.
Hamilton and Matura have a responsibility to their clients. But the evidence against Short Creek is rather damning. As previously reported in Church & State, Jeffs is already in jail for marrying underage girls and two non-FLDS Short Creek residents already sued the city over for claims of religiously-motivated discrimination and won. The odds are not stacked in Short Creek’s favor.
And perhaps that’s how it should be. There are other contemporary examples of planned religious communities—see Ave Maria in Florida—but Short Creek stands apart both for its polygamous practices and its rather egregious alleged civil rights violations. If the DOJ’s current allegations are true, community officials totally abandoned their constitutional responsibilities in order to carry out their prophet’s orders.
Moreover, the DOJ hasn’t violated the First Amendment by investigating Short Creek’s practices. Government officials did not simply target a faith; they acted because they’d received allegations of serious wrongdoing.
There are signs Short Creek has begun to open up to the world. Perhaps this trial will help them along that path.