A US federal jury has found that two border towns in the American Southwest violated the civil rights of residents who did not follow the beliefs of a polygamous cult that controlled the communities by denying them basic services.
Municipal officials of the twin communities of Colorado City in Arizona and Hildale, Utah, effectively functioned as agents of the sect, the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) , the jury found.
They blatantly discriminated against non-believers, refusing to provide them with basic services such as police protection, building permits and utilities, including access to a water system, the jury ruled.
One woman who was denied a water connection testified that she had to haul water to her home and cart away sewage for six years. A former sect member said police ignored hundreds of complaints of vandalism on his property because he had left the church.
"In its advisory verdict, the jury found that the the Colorado City Marshal's Office, the cities' joint police department, operated as an arm of the FLDS church in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment; engaged in discriminatory policing in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment ... and subjected individuals to unlawful stops, seizures and arrests in violation of the Fourth Amendment," the US Attorney's Office in Phoenix said in a statement.
The District Court in Phoenix awarded $2.2m (£1.54m) to the six people who sued the local governments — but a settlement reached before the verdict was announced granted the individuals only $1.6m (£1.12m), reports National Public Radio.
The judge will now decide what the towns must do to correct the problems, and determine further fines.
Prosecutors said town employees followed commands from church leaders during closed-door meetings about whom to appoint to government jobs. They also helped former leader Warren Jeffs when he was a fugitive. Jeffs is believed to run the sect from a Texas prison cell where he is serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting an underaged girl he "married."
Officials also said police failed to enforce the law by ignoring food stamp fraud and continuing sexual assaults of underage girls by male church members.
Leaders of the group say the court case is religious persecution.
The civil rights lawsuit decision comes amid a crackdown on the cult by the US government.
Two of Jeffs' brothers were among 11 members of the cult indicted in late February on charges of food stamp fraud and money laundering in Hildale and in South Dakota.
"If they're finally going to prosecute Lyle [Jeffs] and the leaders of the church, it will eventually bring the church down," Wallace Jeffs, a half-brother of Warren told the Salt Lake Tribune. "This pretty much cuts the head off the snake."
The US Department of Labor has a separate action against a ranch with ties to the church over a pecan harvest in which children were forced to work long hours with few breaks.