Canada's most infamous polygamist, Winston Blackmore, appeared in court in Vancouver, BC on Monday to fight the province's latest round of polygamy charges against him.
The current charge is the latest in a long and complicated series of failed attempts by the government to convict Blackmore and other spiritual leaders in Bountiful, a religious commune in southern BC, who believe that men need to have multiple wives to make it into the highest echelons of heaven in the afterlife.
Last August, a BC special prosecutor once again charged the leader of the fundamentalist Mormon sect with one count of polygamy, accusing him of having 24 wives. If convicted, he could face a prison sentence of up to five years.
Members of the mainstream Mormon church, which has an estimated 15 million members worldwide, officially renounced polygamy in 1890.
Blackmore has been quiet since the charges were announced, but one of his wives, Marsha Chatwin, told The Canadian Press in August the charges are a violation of religious freedom. "It seems ridiculous that they would say you can have relationships with people but if it's in the name of religion, then you can't," she said.
Blackmore was also charged with polygamy in 2009, but the charges were thrown out after he successfully argued that the BC attorney general improperly appointed the special prosecutor who laid the charges. The judge ruled that the attorney general was not authorized to choose a new special prosecutor after the previous ones it chose had recommended against charging Blackmore with polygamy. In other words, the attorney general could not keep shopping for prosecutors until it found one who did want to pursue criminal charges.
Blackmore will put forward the same argument in court this time around.
The BC government is defending its right to pursue the polygamy charges again, claiming that, since 2009, the court reinforced that polygamy is a crime in Canada and evidence has since emerged that underage girls from Bountiful have been trafficked to fundamentalist Mormon churches in the US to marry older men.
"(The judge) expressly found that the successive appointment of special prosecutors is authorized…where there has been a change in circumstance," says the province's submission in reply to Blackmore's petition against the charges.
According to the Vancouver Sun, the province is referring to recent evidence that includes marriage records seized in a raid of a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) compound formerly led by Warren Jeffs, who was sentenced in 2001 to life in prison for sexually abusing multiple child brides.
According to the Vancouver Sun, Blackmore has admitted to marrying underage girls when he testified in Salt Lake City in February 2014 during a civil case regarding church property.
But, he stressed that he "never touched anybody before they were 16."
In 2011, the BC Supreme Court upheld Canada's law that prohibits polygamy. The judge ruled that while criminalizing polygamy does violate freedom of religion, the violation is justified because polygamy is harmful to children and society.
Many religious and children's rights advocates applauded the decision, but feminists and civil liberties groups have argued that it is unconstitutional to criminalize relationships among consenting adults. They argue that polygamy is not, itself, harmful and that Canada has sufficient laws to tackle any allegations of child or sexual abuse.
Blackmore, who reportedly has more than 130 children, was the Canadian bishop for the FLDS for almost two decades until he was excommunicated by Warren Jeffs in 2002. The Bountiful community subsequently split up into two groups, with Blackmore leading half and James Oler leading the rest.
Oler, Blackmore's brother-in-law, has also been charged with one count of polygamy — for allegedly having four wives. Oler, Blackmore's daughter-in-law, and son, also face charges for unlawfully removing a minor from Canada for sexual purposes.
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