Polygamy’s wrongs traced in testimony

Religious freedom at heart of Canada case

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Canada’s ban on polygamy should be upheld because it protects women and children, attorneys said Friday in a landmark case to decide whether the ban violates religious freedom.

Polygamy is “legally, morally, socially and economically wrong,” Jonathan Baker, legal counsel for Real Women of Canada, told British Columbia Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman.

Even if a polygamous union has been made with consent, the state has an interest in prohibiting it because of the harm or potential for harm, said Mr. Baker, whose nonprofit organization supports conservative family values in women’s issues.

Testimony continues Monday and is scheduled to end in mid-April. The issue is expected to end up before the Supreme Court of Canada.

Polygamy law is of local and international interest because it can lead to human trafficking from other countries. Polygamy also creates legal problems when men with multiple wives immigrate to nonpolygamous countries. In recent years, France and England have struggled to deal with the explosion of Muslim and African polygamous communities in their lands.

In Canada, Justice Bauman eventually will issue an opinion on whether Section 293 of the Canadian criminal code, which forbids polygamy, is constitutional under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He has been hearing testimony since November on this legal reference case, which allows an issue to be considered without prosecuting anyone.

The case began after a criminal case against two polygamous men from Bountiful, British Columbia, was thrown out on a technicality. British Columbia officials asked for a legal opinion on whether the law was constitutional.

Bountiful is an enclave for members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway group from the Mormon church.

Law enforcement officials have been concerned about complaints of human trafficking, forced marriage of child brides and other misconduct in the tight-knit community.

In his testimony Friday, Mr. Baker cited expert testimony about how polygamy is historically associated with exploitation and coercion of young women, jealousy and rivalry among wives and their children, dissipation of family wealth, unequal treatment of household members, and banishment and disinheritance of disfavored children.

Polygamy undermines children’s education and is harmful to girls and boys alike, said Robyn Trask, representing the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation.

In polygamous societies, where one man has many wives, “girls are less likely to be educated” and up to half of boys can be ejected from their primary communities, she said. Moreover, the communities can be insular, resulting in schooling that does not offer children a broad education or help them develop critical thinking skills, Ms. Trask said.

In other testimony Friday, attorneys for the West Coast Legal Action Fund said polygamy exploits women and girls, and, if Canada legalized polygamy, it would put the nation in violation of several international agreements that uphold human rights.

The Christian Legal Fellowship (CLF) also testified that Canada’s high court answered the constitutional question of polygamy when it dealt with same-sex marriage in 2004.

The Supreme Court said that defining marriage as the union of two people “is consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” CLF counsel Gerald Chipeur said. It is therefore constitutional that Canada’s Parliament can prohibit acts that contravene that definition, especially if they are harmful or potentially harmful, he said.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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