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Bountiful sect believes in faith's polygamy doctrine, court told

Residents of a fundamentalist Mormon sect in the small British Columbia commune of Bountiful believe they are adhering to the original word of the religion's prophet, says a former plural wife and advocate of polygamy.

The B.C. court case examining the constitutionality of Canada's anti-polygamy law watched a video Thursday of an interview with Anne Wilde, a member of the Salt Lake City-based group Principle Voices.

In the video posted on Wilde's website, she detailed the origins of polygamy within the Mormon church and the split within the community after the mainstream church abandoned polygamy in the late 1890s.

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Several polygamous groups have emerged since, including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS. Residents of Bountiful, B.C., and several communities in the U.S. are members of the FLDS.

The mainstream church has rejected any connection to the FLDS or other fundamentalists, and insists those groups don't have the right to call themselves Mormons.

The video wasn't recorded by B.C. government lawyers, but by a Mormon podcaster and posted to Wilde's website.

In the video, Wilde explained that followers believe Joseph Smith, the religion's founding prophet, asked God why several biblical figures such as Abraham and Jacob had multiple wives.

They believe God told Mr. Smith to practise plural marriage, and by the 1850s, the church under Brigham Young officially sanctioned polygamy. That same version of events is also described on the official website of the Mormon church.

But as the territory of Utah lobbied for statehood, the church issued two declarations, first in 1890 and again in 1904, officially rejecting polygamy. The church says it now excommunicates polygamists.

Wilde said members of the FLDS believe those declarations were political, not religious.

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"Because of lots of threats from the government, they issued a manifesto, it was really a press release, and fundamentalist Mormons don't consider it a revelation (from God)," said Ms. Wilde, who isn't a member of the FLDS and instead describes herself as an "independent" fundamentalist.

"So they issued this press release to the government with the idea that they would know that, as a church, we would discontinue that practice so the persecution would stop and we (Utah) could eventually become a state."

Ms. Wilde said fundamentalist Mormons don't believe the church leadership had the power to renounce polygamy at all.

"We feel like we have the right and the authority and the permission to keep on living that doctrine," she said.

"Eternal, by definition, means unchanging, never stopping. ... It's an eternal principle, it's always true and people can choose whether to follow it."

Ms. Wilde was born in Detroit into a mainstream Mormon family, and later moved to Salt Lake City. She studied at Brigham Young University, and said she started thinking about polygamy after reading about the origins of the church in her youth.

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She became her husband's second wife in 1969 at the age of 33, and later several more wives joined the family. She already had children from a previous marriage, and didn't have any more with her new husband. He died in 2002.

"I got a definite answer to prayer and I have never questioned for a minute that I was to live in plural marriage and was to be in that family," said Ms. Wilde.

She painted a picture of a happy polygamous life, with each wife living in separate houses and married to a husband who was "the closest thing to a perfect man I had ever met."

Ms. Wilde said polygamy should be decriminalized, and allegations of abuse, such as forced marriage, should be investigated and prosecuted.

"We feel like if it's between consenting adults and all the parties are in agreement, we're not doing anybody any harm," said Ms. Wilde.

"And certainly with all the alternative lifestyles that are out there today, this is one that ought to be considered as legitimate."

One of the questions at issue in the B.C. case is whether polygamy is a protected religious practice under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The B.C. and federal governments are arguing any claim to religious protection is outweighed by the alleged harms associated with polygamy, including teenage brides, forced marriages and abuse. They argue those are inherent in all forms of polygamy.

A court-appointed lawyer and the FLDS are both arguing against the law, saying it violates the charter's religious guarantees, and any abuses that occur in polygamous communities are isolated incidents that have nothing to do with polygamy itself.

Later this month, the case will hear from several women from Bountiful, who are expected to testify they are happy in their plural marriages and don't feel abused. They have been granted permission to testify anonymously, after a lawyer for the FLDS argued they could face criminal charges if they spoke out publicly.

The hearings have already featured testimony, on video and in person, from former residents of polygamous communities who have recounted lives of physical and emotional abuse, as well as experts who have offered contradictory opinions on whether polygamy is inherently harmful.

The case was prompted by the failed prosecution in 2009 of Bountiful's two leaders.

Winston Blackmore and James Oler were each charged with practising polygamy, but the charges were thrown out on technical legal grounds.

Mr. Blackmore, who is suing the province for wrongful prosecution, is boycotting the hearings. Mr. Oler was initially expected to testify, but he has now decided against appearing.

The Canadian Press

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