Two top leaders of a fundamentalist polygamous sect in Bountiful, British Columbia, have been arrested and charged with practicing polygamy.
Legal experts say the case promises to pit Canada's anti-polygamy law against the country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of religious expression.
The case may also test whether Canada's decision to legalize same-sex marriage also justifies the practice of polygamy.
Winston Blackmore, 52, and James Oler, 44, leaders of rival factions in their religious community, were arrested and charged in January with one count each of practicing polygamy.
The criminal charges against the men are a first in Canada. Laws banning polygamy date back decades, but no one has ever been prosecuted for breaking them.
The settlement of Bountiful, is composed of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS)—an offshoot of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago. The Canadian branch is part of the breakaway sect led by jailed U.S. polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who was sentenced in 2007 to 10 years to life in prison for two counts of rape as an accomplice for arranging marriages between his adult male followers and underage girls.
Approximately 800 men, women, and children live in Bountiful, in southeastern British Columbia, which was first established in the 1940s. The group lived in seclusion and had little contact with the outside world until about 25 years ago.
British Columbia Attorney General Wally Oppal said Blackmore is alleged to be married to 20 women, while Oler is accused of being married to two women.
"This has been a very complex issue," Oppal told the Canadian Press. "It's been with us for well over 20 years. The problem has always been [that] the defense of religion has always been raised."
Oppal added that he has "always disagreed" with the argument that religious freedoms trump laws banning polygamy.
A defense lawyer in the case will argue that Canada's decision to legalize same-sex marriage broadens the definition of marriage to include multiple spouses.
Blair Suffredine, lawyer for Winston Blackmore, said he will argue in court that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects polygamy under the principles of equality and religious freedom.
When the Canadian Parliament made same-sex marriage legal in 2005, members of the Conservative Party of Canada argued that changing the definition of marriage would open the door to court challenges from people who wanted polygamous unions.
Canadian evangelical Christians also opposed making same-sex marriage legal on the grounds that it could permit immigrants from countries where polygamy is legal to maintain multiple spouses in Canada. Some Muslim countries allow polygamy.
Legal specialists say it would be hard to cite same-sex marriage laws to defend polygamy in the U.S., in part because same-sex unions are not constitutionally approved across the country.
In the U.S., polygamists who belong to fundamentalist breakaway Mormon sects have been prosecuted for sexual crimes involving minors—not for polygamy itself.
Daphne Gilbert, a law professor at the University of Toronto, told the Canadian Press the argument proposed by Blackmore's lawyer is predictable, but without merit.
Same-sex relationships maintain Canada's traditional view of marriage, she said, because they involve only two people. Polygamous marriages, she added, raise questions about whether the often-young wives are truly consenting to being married.
Even if a lawyer could prove that a ban on polygamous marriage is a violation of the Charter, Gilbert said the Canadian government would be allowed to ban polygamy by arguing the value of protecting the greater public good.
If convicted, the two men face a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
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