10 Feb 2009

B.C. civil liberties group calls on Crown to drop polygamy charges

The Canadian Press - February 9, 2009

VANCOUVER, B.C. — A civil liberties watchdog group is calling on the Crown to immediately drop polygamy charges against the leaders of a controversial B.C. religious sect.

Winston Blackmore and James Oler, leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Bountiful, B.C., were charged last month with practising polygamy.

Blackmore, 52, is accused of having 19 wives and 44-year-old Oler, three.

But the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said Monday that the 1892 law that the two men have been charged under violates religious freedom.

"The Criminal Code provides adequate provisions for protecting vulnerable women and children without invoking section 293," the group said in a statement.

"We should not... stand by quietly while the anti-polygamy law is used in a selective fashion to intrude on religious freedom and/or on responsible adults who make relationship choices that alarm or puzzle other Canadians."

The association called the law barring multiple marriages "archaic and over-vague," and said the prosecutions were "ill-advised."

"The provisions are drafted very broadly. Their original intent was to keep Mormons out of Canada," association policy director Micheal Vonn said in an interview.

"They have the potential to be used again in a discriminatory fashion."

The association said it has long been concerned about allegations of child abuse by the sect, a breakaway of the mainstream Mormon church which abandoned polygamy more than a century ago. The group urged police to lay appropriate charges if there is any evidence of abuse.

Special prosecutor Terry Robertson did not return a call seeking comment.

Shortly after his arrest, Blackmore said the decision to charge him was religious persecution.

Blackmore said there are tens of thousands of polygamists from many different cultures living across the country but his religious sect, which openly practices multiple marriage, is being targeted.

He suggested his arrest was political grandstanding ahead of a May 12 provincial election.

The province was under increasing pressure after Warren Jeffs, the U.S. spiritual leader of the sect, was jailed in Utah as an accomplice to rape for his role in marrying a teenaged girl, and after authorities in Texas raided a sister sect to Bountiful in that state last fall.

The civil liberties group believes the case against the two men will fail.

"We look to the lessons of history like the Doukhobors and various other places where we've gone in with a sledge hammer and had terrible results," Vonn said.

"We have a way of going about this with relative precision and stability and we've chosen to go a different route."

The association is urging that the constitutionality of the anti-polygamy law be tested by a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada -a recommendation made in earlier legal opinions prepared for the B.C. attorney general.

Vonn said the section being used to prosecute Blackmore and Oler could be used to prosecute many Canadians.

"Before your official divorce papers come through, you move in with somebody else," she said.

"You are probably a polygamist according to how broadly drafted those provisions are in the Criminal Code."

Vonn said his group is hopeful its advice will be heeded.

"We're making a rational argument, we're saying why it is that we're making this call and yes, of course, we're hoping that we'll be listened to."

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