Canada: 'B.C. Supreme Court upholds ban on polygamy

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CTV News

A judge in British Columbia has decided that Canada's ban of polygamy does not violate the country's Charter of Rights.

B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman issued his decision Wednesday, saying that while the ban does indeed violate the freedom-of-religion rights of those practising polygamy, polygamy brings such harm to women and children that they outweigh those rights.

In his 335-page decision, Bauman said that polygamy fundamentally hurts women, their children, and society in general.

"Women in polygamous relationships are at an elevated risk of physical and psychological harm. They face higher rates of domestic violence and abuse, including sexual abuse. Competition for material and emotional access to a shared husband can lead to fractious co-wife relationships," he wrote.

"Polygamy has negative impacts on society flowing from the high fertility rates, large family size and poverty associated with the practice. It generates a class of largely poor, unmarried men who are statistically predisposed to violence and other anti-social behaviour," he added.

Bauman added that the polygamy ban law is only valid if it isn't used to prosecute child brides.

During 42 days of hearings in the case, the court heard testimony from academic experts, former polygamist women and current plural wives.

Lawyers with the federal and provincial governments argued that polygamy is inherently harmful and must be outlawed, while critics of the law said the law violates their right to religious freedom.

Most of the evidence focused on the community of Bountiful, B.C., whose residents adhere to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which believes plural marriage will allow members to reach the highest level of heaven.

Robert Wickett, a lawyer for the church, said his clients "will be concerned that people will be charged criminally, there's no question about that."

B.C. Attorney General Shirley Bond said Bauman's decision makes the laws surrounding polygamy "clear."

"I think the message will be heard loudly in Bountiful and across the country," she said.

It was the failed prosecution of two leaders from the Bountiful community that prompted the provincial government to send a reference to Bauman.

Anti-polygamy advocate Nancy Mereska said Bauman's decision is in keeping with international conventions that say polygamy harms women and children.

"The women that I have talked to and have been associated with in polygamy are women who have from childhood, babyhood, have been abused and harmed in this culture," Mereska, president of Stop Polygamy Canada, told CTV News Channel.

"They were forced into early marriages, they were told that their salvation was wrapped around their being obedient to the leaders of their communities. And the abuse that they have suffered throughout their lives is endemic and it's lifetime sentences for all of them."

Mereska said in polygamous families, children are denied close relationships with their fathers and can be denied a formal education.

Mark Henkel, a leading polygamy advocate in the United States, said coercion or abuse can be dealt with "on a criminal basis," but polygamy between consenting adults should be legal.

"But when you talk about normal, consenting adult polygamy that has nothing to do with the paradigms of religious coercion as (Mereska) described," Henkel said. "That was not about polygamy, that was about the religion coercing situations of crimes against women and children."

According to Henkel, Bauman's decision "has insulted every Canadian woman" because it implies that they "are not smart enough to choose for themselves."

Despite today's decision, CTV's legal analyst Steven Skurka says this case is far from over.

"I can tell you one thing for certain: this case will be appealed to the B.C. Court of Appeal and ultimately, to the Supreme Court of Canada," Skurka said minutes after the decision came down. "It's just too important, too pivotal, to just stand with this decision, as thorough and comprehensive as it was."

Skurka added: "We're years away from final decision in this case."

Lawyers arguing in favour of plural marriage have 30 days to appeal Bauman's decision.