In a legal showdown over Canada's polygamy law that has been 20 years in the making, B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal announced charges yesterday against religious leader Winston Blackmore, who has openly talked about having married several young brides, and a rival leader in the religious sect.
The British Columbia government has been debating for years whether polygamy charges should be laid against members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a closely knit community in a remote valley in the southeast corner of the province that encourages multiple marriages as an article of faith.
The Bountiful community has been the subject of several police probes since the late 1980s after allegations of polygamy, sexual abuse, exploitation of children and trafficking of teenage brides across the Canada-U.S. border.
Prosecutors up to this point have refused to proceed with charges, anticipating that provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantee freedom of religion would overrule evidence of polygamy.
But Mr. Oppal, backed by an opinion from Vancouver lawyer Terry Robertson, believes the police have finally collected sufficient evidence to obtain convictions of polygamy against the two leaders.
"Some people are of the view that people of consenting age ought to have the right to enter into polygamous relationships under religious principles," Mr. Oppal told reporters at a news conference yesterday.
"I disagreed with that," said Mr. Oppal, a former judge on the B.C. Court of Appeal.
The Criminal Code prohibits polygamous practices, he said. "If that section is invalid by virtue of freedom of religion, we should let some court decide that. As far as we are concerned, that is valid law and charges laid are laid under valid sections of the Criminal Code."
He dismissed previous advice to the government to refer the contentious constitutional issue for a court ruling before laying a charge. Courts don't like to give rulings in a vacuum without any kind of facts available to them, Mr. Oppal said.
Mr. Blackmore, 52, was charged with "practising a form of polygamy or practising a kind of conjugal union" with 19 women between May 1, 2005, and Dec. 8, 2006. James Oler, 44, faces the same charge for his relationship with two women between Nov. 1, 2004, and Oct. 8, 2008. The maximum penalty if convicted is five years in prison.
Despite the charges, authorities did not announce any measures yesterday to remove children from the homes of the men.
The charges were welcomed by activists who have pressed the government for such action. Marci Hamilton, a leading scholar on law and religion who has criticized attorneys-general in the United States for not enforcing polygamy laws, said the charges in B.C. could open a door to investigating child abuse in Bountiful.
Prosecutors in Canada and the U.S. have hesitated to press polygamy charges because of what Ms. Hamilton called "weak" arguments about religious freedom. That's left vulnerable children at risk, she said. "It has been put off far too long, far too many children have suffered," Ms. Hamilton, author of God vs. the Gavel, said in an interview from Pennsylvania.
Grant Huscroft, a constitutional law professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, said he anticipated the court will consider the constitutionality of the polygamy law before the two men are put on trial. The process could take several years, he said.
Mr. Blackmore was the FLDS bishop in Canada from 1984 to 2002, when the U.S. leadership replaced him with Mr. Oler. The shift in leadership divided the community of about 1,000 people.
The police came to their homes yesterday morning in street clothes and unmarked cars. Four officers took Mr. Oler and Mr. Blackmore to the police detachment in nearby Cranbrook. Four officers remained behind to speak to members of the community.
Police sought to minimize the impact of the arrests on the community, ensuring that members knew police were not proponents of apprehending children, RCMP Sergeant Tim Shields told reporters. "The arrests were done in a sensitive way, if you can say arrests were done in a sensitive way," Mr. Oppal said.
The RCMP had recommended that the men be released from custody yesterday afternoon on condition they surrender their passports, report to police twice a month and refrain from entering into or performing celestial marriages.
With a report from Wendy Stueck