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Polygamists say Canada’s religious liberty permits several spouses

World News

Charges of polygamy against two men in Canada who have several wives are expected to result in a challenge to the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees religious liberty.

Winston Blackmore, aged 52, and 44-year-old James Oler, from Bountiful, British Columbia, belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Each man was charged on 7 January with one count of practising polygamy. They were released from custody the same day.

Blackmore’s indictment involves 19 women; Oler is charged with being simultaneously married to two women.

Believed to be the first individuals charged in Canada with polygamy in 60 years, the men could face prison sentences of up to five years. They are the first polygamy cases in Canada since the enactment of the charter of rights in 1982.

Bountiful is a community of more than 1000 people a few kilometres north of the border between Canada and the United States, in southeastern British Columbia, Canada’s most westward province.

While Canadian law states it is unlawful to have more than one "spouse", legal experts have advised the province’s attorney-general not to lay polygamy charges in Bountiful, as they would not survive a constitutional challenge.

"I’ve always disagreed with that," said the attorney-general, Wally Oppal. The province has debated laying charges against members of the religious group for 20 years.

In a 2006 television interview, Blackmore said, "Every person has [these] basic rights, fundamental rights and freedoms and one of those is they can worship how they choose and they can associate how they choose."

Blackmore was the FLDS bishop in Canada from 1984 until 2002, when he was ousted by Warren Jeffs, leader of the estimated 10 000-member FLDS, an offshoot of the mainstream Mormon church which had formally renounced polygamy in 1890.

Jeffs, who succeeded his father, Rulon, as leader of the FLDS in 2002, appointed Oler as bishop. Jeffs was later convicted as an accomplice to rape in the U.S. state of Utah. He is awaiting trial on other charges related to under-age marriages in Arizona and Texas.

(c) Ecumenical News International

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