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Feds lose on 2 key issues in discrimination suit against polygamous towns on Arizona-Utah line

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PHOENIX — A judge has dealt losses to the U.S. Justice Department in its lawsuit that alleges polygamous towns on the Arizona-Utah line systematically denied housing, water services and police protection to people who aren't part of the communities' dominant religious sect.

U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland ruled late Wednesday that a 2014 jury verdict in another case won't serve as the judgment on one of the Justice Department's discrimination claims. That means the question of whether officials in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, violated a federal housing law would have to be decided at an upcoming trial.

The judge also limited the number of people who can seek money damages against a water utility for religious-based discrimination, ruling that financial penalties couldn't be sought by 11 people, although three others can do so.

Lawyers for the towns say they don't expect the Justice Department to settle the case. "They just don't seem to be interested in meaningful discussions about a settlement," attorney Blake Hamilton said.

The federal agency has alleged that town officials served as an arm of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that broke away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when it disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.

The lawsuit alleges that the communities' police officers have confronted non-members about their disobedience of church rules, seized their property without due process, failed to investigate crimes against them and returned an underage bride home after she had fled.

The Justice Department has evidence suggesting that officers dropped off packages, letters and other items to sect leader Warren Jeffs while he was a fugitive, the judge wrote. Jeffs is now serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.

The towns also are accused of refusing to provide water services to non-members and preventing them from building homes.

The towns deny the allegations.

The Justice Department is seeking a judge's declaration that the towns have violated a fair housing law and court orders requiring steps to prevent future discrimination.

In a separate lawsuit alleging discrimination, a family won a judgment last year after a federal jury found it was denied water services for religious reasons. The family ultimately settled for about $3 million.

Holland ruled that last year's verdict wouldn't stand as judgment in the Justice Department lawsuit, concluding that there wasn't enough overlap between the cases.

The Justice Department didn't immediately return a call Thursday afternoon seeking comment.

The judge rejected a request by the towns for a pretrial ruling in their favor over the Justice Department's allegation that the communities have systematically discriminated against people for religious reasons.

No trial date has been set.

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