Canada’s law against polygamy faces a court test after the arrest Jan 7 of two of the leaders of a polygamous sect in Bountiful, BC.
BC Attorney General Wally Oppal says some legal experts believe polygamy charges won’t withstand a constitutional challenge in Canada over the issue of freedom of religion.
“I’ve always taken the position that’s a valid offence in law,” he says. “And if someone says that it’s contrary to their religion, let a judge make that decision.”
Oppal says Winston Blackmore faces charges of committing polygamy with 20 women, while James Oler is accused of committing polygamy with two women.
Oppal says the case is about the exploitation of women.
“It’s been with us for well over 20 years,” Opal says. “The problem has always been the defence of religion has always been raised.”
Micheal Vonn of the BC Civil Liberties Association says the case could go as far as the Supreme Court of Canada.
“I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t be a case that wouldn’t be challenged vigorously on both sides,” she said.
She calls the Criminal Code’s polygamy provisions antiquated.
“They are a Victorian anachronism … and ripe to topple,” Vonn says.
Knives out for poly peeps
Blackmore was long known as “the Bishop of Bountiful.”
He runs an independent group of about 400 people in the hamlet just outside Creston, a stone’s throw from the US border.
He once ran the Canadian wing of the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Blackmore was ejected from that group in 2003 by “Prophet” Warren Jeffs.
Jeffs is in jail in Arizona awaiting trial on four counts of being an accomplice to sexual conduct with a minor.
Blackmore acknowledges having numerous wives and dozens of children.
Oler is one of Jeff’s followers.
While they all live on the same land, the community is sharply divided in its loyalties between the leaders. Family members are often forbidden to speak to each other depending upon where their allegiances are.
The Latter-day Saints church renounced polygamy in 1890, but several fundamentalist groups left the main church in order to continue the practice.
A special prosecutor was appointed last June to look into allegations of abuse at Bountiful.
As part of bail conditions, the men are barred from entering into or performing “celestial marriages” as they are known in the sect.
Both men were ordered to surrender their passports.
The West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund welcomes the arrests.
“These charges will allow the courts, the government, the women of Bountiful and all Canadians to determine the boundaries of religious freedom when women’s equality is at stake — a question of interest to many in the world today,” says executive director Alison Brewin.