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B.C. Polygamists Pose Legal Quandary

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints split from mainstream Mormonism after the broader church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

The Toronto Star, Apr. 24, 2005

Photo: Warren Jeffs, who in 2002 succeeded his father, Rulon Jeffs, as president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

Nestled in the shadow of the East Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia lies what has long been known as 'Canada's dirty little secret:' the community of Bountiful, population 1,000, where a small fringe religious group has openly practised polygamy for more than half a century.

In this remote valley paradise, men routinely sire dozens of children with many wives, some as young as 15 or 16 years old. Polygamy, they believe, offers the only route to heaven. And the community holds fast to its convictions, astonishingly unhindered by Canadian laws and values.

Never mind that being married to more than one person at a time is a crime in Canada.

Or that disturbing allegations of child abuse, forcible marriage, sexual exploitation and cross-border trafficking of females dog the community, part of a breakaway group of Mormons known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Or that Bountiful's two schools, which receive public funding, have abominably high dropout rates and have been accused of teaching racism.

Federal and provincial authorities have turned a blind eye to these concerns for years.

But as a handful of former members shed troubling light on this notoriously closed community, many Canadians justifiably want to know why so little has been done.

The answer is almost impossible to comprehend.

The B.C. government has been reluctant to prosecute community members under Canada's anti-polygamy law because it has received legal opinions that the group could challenge the measure under a section of the Charter of Rights that protects religious freedom - and possibly win. These opinions have not been tested in court.

So far, though, provincial prosecutors have been unwilling to try for fear of opening an unthinkable can of worms.

Instead, B.C. Attorney-General Geoff Plant asked the Royal Canadian Mounted Police last summer to investigate the cloud of allegations that hangs over Bountiful. The probe continues but no charges have been laid.

This usually cloistered community turned to modern public relations tactics last week, holding a 'polygamy summit' in an attempt to cast its marriage practices in a more favourable light. Front and centre were women who insisted they are happy with their lives.

'We're just a normal bunch of people trying to live the way we think is right,' explained Marlene Palmer, a 46-year-old mother of six.

But the problem is that the people of Bountiful are not just 'a normal bunch of people.'

They openly flout Canadian laws and offend deeply held Canadian values. Letting well enough alone, as the B.C. government has done for years, does not sit well with many Canadians.

The police investigation is a good first step in looking into the Bountiful controversy. It should finally settle once and for all whether abuse and exploitation are occurring. That the community is closed to outsiders makes the job of investigators hard. But the people of Bountiful, especially children, deserve the same standard of protection as other Canadians.

That probe, however, skirts the biggest issue - that the group practises polygamy in open defiance of the law. B.C. prosecutors should consider charging members under the Criminal Code and let the case play out.

The sect almost certainly will launch a constitutional challenge, claiming the law infringes their religious freedom. The case could very well end up at the Supreme Court of Canada.

But religious freedom, like any other Charter right, is subject to reasonable limits. B.C. may finally have to take on the people of Bountiful and let the courts decide if the law stands up.