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Don't look to stereotypes when deciding fate of polygamy law, professor tells court

Members of the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C. walk down a road near Creston, B.C. Monday, April 21, 2008.

Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. Supreme Court is being cautioned not to rely on stereotypes and prejudice to decide the fate of Canada's polygamy law.

Lori Beaman, who teaches religious studies at the University of Ottawa, testified on Monday that the law against multiple marriages shouldn't hinge on whether the religious beliefs of an obscure polygamous community fall outside what mainstream society considers normal.

"Sometimes, when we're looking at religious minority groups, we'll identify particular religious practices as harmful," Ms. Beaman testified. "Very often, it's religious minority practices that are especially flagged as being harmful. Religious majorities don't tend to come under the same scrutiny."

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The constitutional reference case was prompted by Bountiful, a small commune in southeastern B.C. that follows a fundamentalist interpretation of Mormonism that has long been rejected by the mainstream Mormon church. Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, believe polygamy will benefit them in the afterlife.

The B.C. and federal governments are arguing polygamy is inherently harmful, suggesting multiple marriage leads to child brides, teenage pregnancy, human trafficking and other problems.

The hearings have already featured testimony from former wives of polygamous communities, who have said they were subjugated and abused.

The case will also hear from women living in polygamous marriages who are expected to say they are happy with their lives and don't feel abused.

Ms. Beaman said the court should resist the urge to allow the "horrific" tales of abuse to drown out the voices of women who believe their experiences have been positive.

"We can't extrapolate from horror stories to generalizations about how relationships might look in general," she said.

"Not to deny that there are abusive relationships and not to deny that there are horrible experiences, but we need to be careful when reading accounts not to generalize to the group as a whole."

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That would be akin to interviewing abused women at a shelter and then concluding monogamy is inherently harmful, she said.

In fact, Ms. Beaman pointed to research already presented at the hearings based on interviews with women in Bountiful.

McGill University law professor Angela Campbell, whose controversial testimony was opposed by government lawyers, said the women of Bountiful feel oppressed by the anti-polygamy law, rather than their marriages, and they don't feel they are unequal or treated poorly.

Ms. Beaman said it would be wrong to discount those women's experiences simply because their marriages are different than what's accepted by mainstream society.

"Whether I would choose to say my partner is the head of my household - I wouldn't - is irrelevant; they do," said Ms. Beaman.

"In some of the research in polygamous relationships, we see a surprising ordinariness in some ways, we see women engaging in making financial decisions, women making decisions around raising children, simply engaged in the day-to-day business of life."

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Bountiful has been under scrutiny for more than two decades, but for years, prosecutors shied away from laying charges over concerns the polygamy law wouldn't withstand a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

That changed last year when a special prosecutor recommended two leaders in Bountiful be charged with practising polygamy. Winston Blackmore and James Oler were arrested in January 2009, but the charges against them were later thrown out on technical legal grounds.

Rather than appealing, the B.C. government asked the province's Supreme Court to decide whether the law is constitutional.

Mr. Blackmore is also suing the province for wrongful prosecution.

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