Legalizing polygamy shapes up as societal nightmare

British Columbia’s de facto legalization of polygamy could force a massive overhaul of family law and result in demands that would overwhelm the taxpayer-financed social safety net.

That’s what Ida Chong, B.C.’s minister responsible for women’s issues, has been told by her officials in briefing notes prepared in 2006 prior to her ministry’s budget estimates being debated.

Family law, social programs and even public and private insurance benefits schemes were established on the basis of average-sized, monogamous families. No one contemplated fundamentalist Mormon families composed of several wives and 30, 40, 50 or 100-plus children.

As a result, plural wives and their children have no legal protection or recognition under current laws and social programs. If their religious or spiritual marriage is dissolved, there are no laws covering child custody, support or division of “marital” property in polygamous relationships. In the event of the husband’s death, only the first wife and her family are entitled to his property.

This, of course, could lead to tremendous inequities among the wives and serious consequences for the children’s well-being.

“The de facto or formal legalization of the practice [of polygamy] would invite a situation that carries the potential for enormous challenges in rewriting a whole array of laws,” said the briefing notes dated April 2006.

(British Columbia effectively legalized polygamy in 1990 when then-attorney-general Colin Gabelmann refused to prosecute the leaders of Bountiful, a polygamous community in the province’s southeastern corner, fearing polygamy was protected by the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.)

(Attorney-General Wally Oppal doesn’t share that view. Earlier this month, Oppal said he believes Canadians find polygamy “abhorrent and contrary to the equal treatment of women.” But rather than laying polygamy charges against any of the men in Bountiful, he is considering referring the anti-polygamy law to the B.C. Court of Appeal to determine whether the law is valid.)

In another briefing note from 2006, officials advised Chong that plural wives might be successful if they sued for property by claiming to have contributed to its acquisition and maintenance.

“The husband should not be able to rely on the fact that this was an illegal union to deny this type of equitable relief to recognize contributions,” one briefing note says.

But few of the women have the education, money or knowledge of outside society to take such a case to court. So, to ensure that plural wives and children aren’t abandoned or left destitute, Chong’s staff says dozens of laws would need to be changed — the federal Divorce Act, the provincial Family Relations Act, the Matrimonial Property Act, and the Estate Administration Act.

As difficult as sorting the legal morass may be, it seems almost simple and cheap compared to the implications that legalizing polygamy would have for the taxpayer-financed social safety net.

The April 2006 memo says that while a polygamous husband may have a legal obligation to pay support, “his actual ability to do so will be limited.”

It goes on to say, “If the social assistance system were to take into account the reality of a polygamous lifestyle — and it was confirmed that these families for the most part were not self-sustainable — this would cause a drain on government funds.”

No cost estimate was given. However, one of Bountiful’s leaders, Winston Blackmore, now has 20-some wives and 115 children (most of whom are under the age of 16).

There was also no cost estimate for extending employment benefits to all the wives and children. Instead, the briefing notes simply point out that it would be easy for all of a man’s children to be covered even if they don’t have the same mother.

“While a second or third wife would not be able to apply for benefits, the children of those wives could easily be grouped with the first wife and receive access to benefits, thereby overwhelming insurers and public funds.”

That, of course, would result in inequities between first and subsequent wives (all of whom are expected to have eight to 10 children). But the minister’s staff says that if all of the wives and children were covered, it would likely result in a large increase in premiums in areas where there are substantial numbers of polygamous families.

As for taxes, the bureaucrats said, “Potentially… the man’s deductions, as a result of so many children, would outweigh or greatly reduce any taxes owed.”

For someone like Blackmore, who has more than $6 million worth of assets, it could mean savings of tens of thousands of dollars each year in addition to the tens of thousands he already collects from the Child Tax Credit, B.C. family bonus and the National Child Benefit supplement.

So what will Chong do or say about legalizing polygamy or Bountiful when Oppal goes to cabinet this fall with his recommendations about a court referral? Who knows? Chong’s ministry removed all 18 pages of recommendations before it released the file to me.

But I’m betting that Chong and the others will say no to polygamy. Forget morality, ethics or equality rights. It will come down to cash.

Taxpayers and politicians are reluctant enough to help poor families with several children. Who would willingly subsidize the folly of polygamous men and their super-sized families?

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The Vancouver Sun, Canada
Aug. 31, 2007
Daphne Bramham

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This post was last updated: Friday, August 31, 2007 at 3:52 PM, Central European Time (CET)