3 Jun 2008

Polygamist leader says BC attorney general guilty of religious persecution

The Canadian Press - June 3, 2008

VICTORIA — A religious leader from the B.C. polygamous community of Bountiful is accusing the province's attorney general of religious persecution.

Winston Blackmore, one of two religious leaders in Bountiful, said B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal appears determined to involve himself and his government in religious persecution against the sect.

Oppal announced Monday that he's appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the possibility of criminal charges ranging from sexual assault to polygamy with regard to Bountiful, and provide an opinion on the likelihood of a conviction.

Oppal made the move despite two earlier legal opinions saying proceeding with criminal charges on polygamy would be difficult, because anyone charged criminally under the prohibition of polygamy may decide to defend themselves on grounds that their rights to religious freedom are protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

One examination suggested launching a court challenge of the laws barring polygamy as opposed to a criminal prosecution.

But the B.C. attorney general has said that public concerns about older men marrying young girls and men with multiple wives in Bountiful played a strong part in the decision to review charges.

"I take the public's view into consideration," Oppal said Monday.

"That's not the governing factor, but still, I think, all right-thinking people out in the public have informed us that they want us to do something here."

In an e-mail to The Canadian Press, Blackmore said Oppal wants to force the Liberal government to persecute citizens it has an obligation to serve and protect.

"Mr. Oppal seems determined to involve himself in religious persecution," said Blackmore's e-mail. "It can't possibly be about polygamy. It must be about his own religious bias and now he wants the Liberal government to persecute some of the citizens that they have an obligation to serve and protect."

Blackmore goes on to say: "I guess religious persecution by governments does happen in other countries."

Oppal said Monday that Blackmore - who does not dispute that he lives a polygamist lifestyle and has numerous wives and dozens of children - appears to be daring him to charge him with polygamy.

About 800 people live in Bountiful, where members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints live a polygamous lifestyle in the secluded agricultural community near Creston, B.C.

The sect is a breakaway offshoot of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

Oppal said the recent apprehension of more than 400 children from a sister polygamous community in Texas has raised public interest about Bountiful, which B.C. justice officials have struggled with for more than two decades.

Authorities in Texas removed the children from their homes after they say they received calls to a domestic abuse hotline, purportedly from a 16-year-old in the community who said she was forced into a marriage with a man three times her age. That girl has not been found and authorities are investigating whether the call was a hoax.

But the Texas children, including at least one Canadian teenaged girl from Bountiful, were ordered released from state custody by the courts and began returning to their families this week.

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