The polygamous community of Bountiful is not a congregation and by insisting that it is, community leader Winston Blackmore is trying to offload a tax bill on to those who can ill afford to pay it – including young men shipped out of the community to work at low-paying jobs, a federal tax lawyer said on Monday.
Mr. Blackmore directs what his family should do – "especially young men, who go out and work for a pittance," Justice Department lawyer Lynn Burch said in opening statements on Monday.
It's such young men, many making less than minimum wage, who are among community members to whom Mr. Blackmore wants to shift a tax burden "that the [government]minister says is properly his to bear," Ms. Burch said.
Mr. Blackmore, a long-time community leader in Bountiful, is appealing tax assessments under a little-used section of the Income Tax Act, maintaining that he was doing business for the benefit of the community and congregation.
The federal tax department, however, says Bountiful doesn't meet the requirements spelled out in the act and that Mr. Blackmore made and spent money to support his polygamous family, under-reporting his income along the way.
"If the appellant can be considered a shepherd to his flock, then the role of a good shepherd is to shear his flock, not to skin it," Ms. Burch said.
In court documents, the federal government says that Mr. Blackmore's declared earnings in each of the years under appeal "were insufficient to financially support him, his purported polygamous "wives" and the many children issued from those relationships."
The federal tax case will provide a window into practices and beliefs in Bountiful, located in southeastern B.C. near the Canada-U.S. border.
The mainstream Mormon church renounced polygamy more than a century ago. Bountiful residents are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, a U.S.-based offshoot of the Mormon church that still holds polygamy as a tenet of its faith. Mr. Blackmore was born in the community, of which his father was a founding member.
Ottawa says tax laws governing religious congregations were designed for closed communes such as Hutterite colonies, where residents have no property or possessions of their own and work exclusively for the betterment of their community.
That's a far cry from Bountiful, where some members have credit cards and their own property and work outside the community, Ms. Burch said in her opening remarks. Tax officials have re-assessed Mr. Blackmore's tax filings to add $1.5-million in additional income from 2000 to 2004 and in 2006.
The income is connected to J.R. Blackmore and Sons Ltd., the community's business arm that is involved in logging, fence-post manufacturing and farming in B.C., Alberta and Idaho.
The case also features information about the connections between Bountiful and FLDS communities in the U.S. and a 2002 religious split in Bountiful that resulted in some residents remaining loyal to Mr. Blackmore and others following a rival group headed by James Oler.
"You will hear evidence that the appellant, at best, is a representative of a splinter group of a splinter group," Burch told the judge.
On the stand on Monday, Mr. Blackmore described himself as a "minister and a businessman" and, in response to questions from his lawyer, talked about his religious education and how he took on more senior roles in the church from his teens into his early 20s.
The tax case will provide the second recent window into Bountiful's affairs. Last year, a landmark reference case on the constitutionality of Canada's anti-polygamy law also focused in part on the community and its members' practice of "plural marriage." Last November, a judge concluded Canada's criminal ban against polygamy should be upheld.
With a report from The Canadian Press