Short Creek: Beyond FLDS
The small city of Hildale, Utah, is just across the state line from Colorado City, Arizona, and together, the two towns make up the community called Short Creek.
Short Creek is most known for being the home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) — an extremely strict and insular church that believes in the practice of plural marriage, or polygamy. In recent years, many followers have left or been kicked out of the church, which drastically impacts life in the community. In this series we explore the changing faith, politics and culture in Short Creek.
Church and State
The FLDS church has dominated the politics of Short Creek since its inception, until now. In Hildale's first municipal election since the twin cities of Hildale and Colorado City were found guilty of religious discrimination in a lawsuit by the Justice Department last year, three city council seats and the mayoral seat were up for election.
Twenty-four hours before the polls closed, mayoral candidate Donia Jessop was busy making burgers, wraps and salads, while her husband Joe worked the drive-thru at their new fast food restaurant and convenience store, The Hub.
Jessop’s mayoral campaign was historic. Not only is she a woman, but she is also an ex-church member, or in FLDS terminology, an apostate.
According to church doctrine, leaving the faith means losing your salvation. It also means being shunned by your family and your community.
Despite all of that, Jessop, and a lot of others who left the church, either stayed or moved back to town. Many of those people are now working to change the community from within.
“For the world to see that we are truly making a change in Hildale, and that Hildale is not the same place it used to be — to have a woman as mayor is a big statement,” Jessop said.
Ex-church members said that in previous elections, the church would decide who would run and there would be no competition. In this election, the non-FLDS candidates were voted on ahead of time in an unofficial primary of sorts. A community alliance got together and decided that since FLDS members are known to vote in a block, it would be best not to split up the non-church vote. That made it so that half the candidates running were FLDS and half were not.
The divide between church and non-church members exists throughout the community. According to Jessop, this election was especially personal for most people.
“The people who are currently serving on the town council are our family members,” Jessop said. “So it’s not like we’re going up against strangers. We’re going up against our uncles, our brothers — people that are highly respected. People who I respect.”
Jared Nicol was one of the city council candidates and is a relative newcomer. He moved to Short Creek two and a half years ago from the Salt Lake area.
Hours before the polls closed, he was standing along the highway on the edge of town with his family. He wore a patriotic tie and a leather jacket with an embroidered flag and the letters USA. He and his kids held up signs and waved while trying to get passing cars and trucks to honk in support.
Nicol said he feels like the current city council doesn’t truly listen to the concerns of everyone in the community and that it operates differently than he thinks it should — which is what motivated him to run.
“They do have different ways that you can give information, but it just seems that no one’s really paying attention to what’s coming in,” Nicol said. “They just kind of have an agenda and that’s what’s going to get done.”
Unlike Jessop, Nicol was never a church member. Instead, he is a member of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), or Mormon church, which has disavowed the practice of plural marriage, also known as polygamy.
In Short Creek, this makes him a minority.
“I would like to try to get onto the city council, to help give it diversity,” Nicol said. “Because I do believe that diversity is what helps get you the best product ultimately.”
This election was primarily done by mail-in ballot, and city hall was the only place for in-person voting. Some people showed up there to cast provisional ballots, but for the most part, it was relatively quiet. In the same building as the votes were being cast, is Mayor Philip Barlow’s office.
Barlow is the current mayor of Hildale and is a member of the FLDS church. He was one of the key witnesses in the city’s defense in the Justice Department‘s case last year.
When talking about his vision for the community, he sounds like what many small-town mayors might sound like. His aspirations for the city, at least partially, are to make it feel the way it did in his childhood.
“I’ve grown up in a small town, and I’d like to kind of keep it rural and keep it like it was when I grew up,” Barlow said. “And some of the changes are concerning to me, but, you know, that’s kind of comes with growth. And so it’s hard. Hard to kind of hold it back in some ways but yet, you know, you want it to go the right direction.”
Interestingly, lots of people want the town to feel like it did when they were growing up. But depending on whether or not someone is still a part of the church, that vision can be very different.
One of the many controversies around this election is figuring out exactly who is even eligible to vote.
“I realized that there was a handful of people registered to the address where I lived that had voted in the previous election when I lived there,” said Nicol.
According to Melanie Abplanalp, the Washington County Elections Supervisor, “there is a provision in Utah law for people to pre-challenge voters in a district or a city or a town.”
That is exactly what Nicol and a handful of others in the community who were concerned about possible voter fraud did with a little more than 100 names of people they believed weren’t actually qualified to vote at the address where they were registered. One hundred people is substantial in a city with only 368 registered voters.
“As of the end of the deadline for absentees, which was Nov. 2, we had two voters who could actually prove that they actually resided within the district,” said Abplanalp.
It is unclear why those voters were still on the rolls, and whether this was intentional, or an honest mistake as a result of lots of movement and even evictions in the community. Either way, the process of pre-challenging these names and attempting to clean up the voter rolls was important to candidates like Nicol and Jessop.
On election night, dozens of people showed up at Jessop’s house to watch the results come in. Her living room and kitchen were decorated in red, white and blue. Kids ran around, while people snacked in the kitchen, chatting and drinking wine. A TV was set up in the living room with the Washington County election results on the screen.
As soon as the polls closed everyone gathered around. And once the unofficial tallies came in, someone read off the totals for each of the non-FLDS candidates running. Every time a victory was announced, there was a cheer.
Then someone read the results of the mayoral election, and the room erupted. People threw their arms in the air, screamed and clapped. Jessop won.
So did Nicol, Maha Layton and JVar Dutson — all of the other non-FLDS candidates. They have their work cut out for them. In addition to repairing the town physically, there’s emotional labor to be done as well.
That night was about celebration though. And everyone toasted, “To change.”
🔊 Hear More
Listen to reflections on life in Short Creek by some of its residents.
Stay tuned for future parts of this series:
Chapter 2: The Crick — A brief history of Short Creek and how things got to be so complicated in such a small community.
Chapter 3: Apostates — Conversations with those who left, or were kicked out, of the FLDS church.
Chapter 4: You Gotta Have Faith — Now that there are so many ex-church members in the community, there are a handful of religious groups that are new to Short Creek.
Chapter 5: Reinvention — A profile of two women who are spearheading efforts to support those who have left the FLDS church.