VICTORIA, British Columbia — British Columbians, arguably Canada’s most morally permissive population, are discovering that tolerance has its limits.
At issue is the polygamous behavior of the breakaway Mormons of Bountiful, a community of about 700, tucked away in the mountainous southeast corner of the province close to the American border.
British Columbia Attorney General Wally Oppal repeatedly has stated his desire to prosecute the handful of middle-aged men with multiple partners like Bountiful’s unofficial leader, Winston Blackmore, who has reportedly fathered 100 children by 20 wives.
But Oppal’s own legal advisers have warned him that Canada’s century-old anti-polygamy law would probably be overturned by the protection of religious freedom enshrined in the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
And the legal fate of the obscure border community could have international ramifications: According to some observers, other countries that follow Canada’s lead and legalize same-sex “marriage” may be forced to sanction polygamous unions, as well.
Bountiful was established in 1946 by followers of the Arizona-based United Effort Order, whose founders broke with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when the latter dropped polygamy in 1890 as part of a deal with the U.S. government.
The colony emerged from obscurity in the early 1990s when some female members left the community and instigated criminal charges with claims they had been forced, as minors, into plural marriages.
Blackmore, recently deposed as the community’s bishop, insists the Canadian constitution protects the Bountiful Mormons’ practice of “plural marriage” just as it protects other Canadians practicing their religions.
“I never created my faith. I was born in it,” said Blackmore. “In Canada there’s lots of different cultures being faithful to their faith base.”
Blackmore said there are plenty of examples of plural marriage in the Old Testament, and no condemnations of it in the New Testament.
Said Blackmore, “If Christ were to condemn plural marriage he would have had to nullify the Old Testament.”
With four legal opinions already in hand pronouncing the polygamy law constitutionally unenforceable because it violates religious freedom rights, Oppal commissioned a fifth one this summer, after initiating a Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation into whether the polygamous men could be charged with sexual exploitation of minors under the polygamy law.
Vancouver lawyer Richard Peck also concluded the polygamy law couldn’t be enforced, but recommended the government refer the law itself to the courts for a definitive ruling.
The claim that the legal force of freedom of religion is pre-eminent with respect to polygamy puzzles marital law expert Daniel Cere, a political science professor at Montreal’s McGill University and the director of the university’s Newman Institute of Catholic Studies.
“I find it a bit bizarre because charter provisions for freedom of religion have failed in a number of recent cases,” Cere said, citing failed efforts by Catholic institutions to maintain heterosexual-only adoption services not only in Canada but also in Britain and the United States. “When religious rights come up against sexual freedom in court, it loses.”
Unlike homosexual “marriage,” which is an innovation of modern Western societies, polygamy has a long history. Polygamy — or more accurately polygyny, the marriage of one man to more than one woman — is allowed in many of the world’s cultures, largely to the benefit of wealthy and powerful men.
The Church teaches that “Polygamy is not in accord with the moral law. [Conjugal] communion is radically contradicted by polygamy; this, in fact, directly negates the plan of God which was revealed from the beginning, because it is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women who in matrimony give themselves with a love that is total and therefore unique and exclusive. The Christian who has previously lived in polygamy has a grave duty in justice to honor the obligations contracted in regard to his former wives and his children” (Catechism, No. 2387).
Cere said that polygamy discriminates both against women and against less privileged men, since some men have many wives while many younger, poorer men have none.
“Polygamy is about the extension of social, political and economic power into sexual relationships,” said Cere.
Cere said the Catholic Church has been polygamy’s strongest opponent since the Middle Ages. Monogamy not only dovetailed with the Church’s development of marriage as a sacrament freely chosen by both parties, but with the egalitarian nature of salvation.
And in rebuttal of polygamist Blackmore, Cere says the New Testament is full of implicit support for monogamy, such as Christ’s prohibition of divorce.
Said Cere, “Many things aren’t explicit in the New Testament because they did not need to be raised.”
Some Canadian pro-family advocates suggest that the legal case against polygamy was fatally compromised when Canada’s Parliament legalized same-sex “marriage” in 2005.
“During the debate on same-sex ‘marriage,’ when Liberal Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler adamantly testified that polygamy would not be an issue, everyone knew very well that it would be,” Canadian lawyer Gwen Landolt, national director of REAL Women of Canada, told Lifesite News Service Aug. 2.
“If you can break down the laws guarding heterosexual marriage between a man and a woman, then anything can happen,” said Landolt. “If you can have a partner of the same sex, then logically you can have two or three of the opposite sex.”
Landolt confirmed her comments when contacted by the Register Aug. 16.
Landolt’s perspective is shared by National Review Online Editor Stanley Kurtz. Writing in February 2006, Kurtz reported that two studies commissioned by Canada’s Justice Ministry during the debate over same-sex “marriage” had recommended the decriminalization of polygamy.
Kurtz said that if the debate over polygamy in Canada were limited to the actions of the Bountiful community — or pressure from Canadian Muslims, whose religion formally allows men to have multiple wives — there would be little chance of its legalization.
But Kurtz noted that Martha Bailey, author of one of the Justice Ministry studies advocating decriminalization of polygamy, “directly links her legal argument on polygamy to same-sex ‘marriage.’”
Said Kurtz, “Canada’s socially liberal legal elites are just using the ‘gay marriage’ movement, fundamentalist Mormons, and Muslim immigrants to get what they’re truly after: the slow-motion abolition of marriage.”
According to Kurtz, the situation in Canada with respect to polygamy is “a preview of the argument we’ll be having should same-sex ‘marriage’ be fully established here in the United States.”
Landolt agreed with Kurtz in her comments to Lifesite News Service.
“If polygamy is upheld in Canada, how long will it take to be upheld around the world?” she said. “As the same-sex ‘marriage’ has turned out to be, it’s an international problem.”
(Register Staff contributed to this story.)
Steve Weatherbe writes from
Victoria, British Columbia.