B.C. polygamists win support of civil rights group

Canada’s ban on polygamy invites the state into the bedrooms of consenting adults, says a B.C. civil rights group that is siding with a controversial religious sect in a landmark court case on the federal law barring multiple marriage.

The Canadian Press reports:

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has filed a final argument in B.C. Supreme Court against the polygamy law, saying it is a Victorian-era statute that should be “relegated to the scrap heap of history.”

“It invites the state to inspect the bedrooms — and kitchens and living rooms — of consenting adults who find fulfilment in plural relationships,” association lawyer Monique Pongracic-Speier said in a statement issued Thursday.

“It erodes the dignity of people involved in those relationships and denies them the privacy that is available to couples and monogamous families.”

Individuals should be free to make the life choices they wish, so long as those choices do not harm others and are made with informed consent, she said.

While it is understandable that the civil rights groups want to keep the government out of the bedroom, there is overwhelming evidence that polygamy is inherently harmful both to individuals and to society.

Daphne Bramham — author of the book, The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada’s Polygamous Mormon Sect [Kindle edition | Buy a Kindle] — reported:

Increased crime, prostitution and anti-social behaviour. Greater inequality between men and women. Less parental investment in children. And, a general driving down of the age of marriage for all women.

These are some of the harms of polygamy (or more correctly, polygyny, since it is almost always men marrying more than once) that are outlined in a 45-page research paper by noted Canadian scholar Joseph Henrich, filed Friday in B.C. Supreme Court.

Indeed, according to the Canadian Press report cited above:

Both levels of government are defending the law, arguing polygamy is inherently harmful and must be kept illegal. They’ve alleged multiple marriage inevitably leads to sexual and physical abuse, child brides, teen pregnancies and the trafficking of young girls to be married.

Provincial government lawyer Craig Jones, a former president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said polygamy harms not just the people involved in polygamous families, but also society as a whole.

“There is a significant increased risk to women and children in polygamous households … and second, there are significant and measurable harms to a society in which polygamy is practised,” Jones said in his written final submission.

“These latter social harms are felt regardless of whether any particular polygamous relationship is ‘good’ or ‘bad.”‘

In other words, polygamy is harmful to both individuals and society regardless of whether or not individuals engage in polygamy with ‘informed consent.’

It should be noted that the constitutional reference case is a direct result of Canada’s legal wranglings with the polygamous community in Bountiful, B.C.

Bountiful is a religious community which split in 2002 over the succession of leadership within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). At the time Warren Jeffs muscled William Blackmore — then bishop of Canada’s FLDS community — and others out the way to succeed his father and become the sect’s prophet.

Jeffs then excommunicated Blackmore, splitting the community of Bountiful nearly in half. Roughly half the 1,500 people stayed with the FLDS and prophet Warren Jeffs, who appointed Jim Oler as head of the community in Canada. The remainder continued to follow the ousted bishop, Winston Blackmore.

In January 2009, Blackmore Oler were charged with one count each of polygamy. Those charges were subsequently stayed because a B.C. Supreme Court justice determined that then-attorney-general Wally Oppal had improperly hired the special prosecutor who recommended the charges.

Yet with “long-standing allegations of child brides, sexual exploitation, forced marriage, abuse of public funds and human trafficking” within the Bountiful community these events helped spur the government into action. Hence the constitutional reference case.

As Daphne Bramham points out, the stakes are high:

Canada is either on the cusp of legalizing polygamy or strengthening the 120-year prohibition against multiple marriage. […]

If Chief Justice Robert Bauman agrees with the legalizers, Canada would be the first country in the developed world to lift the prohibition on multiple marriage and it would be swimming against a tide of criminalization in developing countries in Africa and Asia.

And it’s fair to say that it would likely be interpreted as Canada throwing down the welcome mat to fundamentalist Mormons, who have been largely rooted out of Utah and Arizona and are under attack in Texas, as well as to Muslims (who are watching the case), Wiccans and to secular polyamorists.

There are yet higher stakes as well: recently new evidence came to light that parents in Bountiful smuggled young girls across the border to marry cult leader Warren Jeffs. At the time when the alleged ‘celestial marriages’ took place, Jeffs was in his late 40s.

Jeffs is currently in a Texas prison awaiting trial on child sexual assault and bigamy charges.

While jailed he recently retook control as president of the FLDS. At one point Jeffs renounced his title as ‘prophet’ of the sect, but currently he once again views himself as a special messenger from God.

Meanwhile the Canadian Press writes:

The B.C. civil rights group said it, too, is concerned about allegations of child abuse and sexual interference but argued that criminal activity should be investigated and prosecuted whether it occurs in polygamous or monogamous relationships.

See also: Q&A: Why a B.C. civil liberties group says polygamists should be left alone

Research resources on polygamy
Research resources on the FLDS
Research resources on Bountiful

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday March 18, 2011.
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