Polygamy and Religious Freedom

Marriage in Canada Up For Grabs

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, FEB. 6, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Polygamy should be allowed as part of the exercise of religious freedom, according to a splinter Mormon group in Canada.

Over the last few months British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Robert Bauman has been hearing arguments about whether polygamy should be legal. According to the Bountiful community of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms means that as part of their religious rights men should be allowed multiple wives.

The group has around 10,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, according to a Nov. 23 report by the BBC. About 1,000 of them live in Bountiful.

British Columbia has a 19th century law prohibiting polygamy, but in the past turned a blind eye to what the group was doing, fearing that the law might not be constitutional. Authorities changed their minds, however, and charged two elders of Bountiful with polygamy. The case was dismissed on technical grounds in 2009.

Rather than appeal the decision the British Columbia authorities asked the high court to look at the constitutionality of the anti-polygamy law, resulting in the current court case which has just finished hearing the evidence from both sides.

If the law were to be struck down the risk is that Canada could attract polygamous immigrant families, bringing about harm to society, Crown lawyer Craig Jones argued before the court, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported Nov. 23.

Jones said that the community of Bountiful suffered from problems such as underage brides, teen pregnancy, and men and boys who were driven out. Such harms are «inevitable consequences» of polygamy, he maintained.

«Polygamy leaves some young men with no opportunities to marry or create a family,» Deborah Strachan, representing the Attorney-General of Canada, said the following day, according to the Nov. 24 edition of the Globe and Mail. «There is a cohort of boys and young men who find themselves rejected in one way or another from the community,» she added.


Economist Shoshana Grossbard, who has written several books on the economics of marriage, gave evidence saying that invariably the male leaders in polygamous societies have institutionalized women into subservience, the Vancouver Sun reported, Dec. 9.

Appearing as an expert witness the San Diego State University professor noted that polygamous societies have a higher frequency of arranged marriages to older men, and this increases the likelihood of early widowhood and financial hardship.

Other experts, from both sides, gave evidence in December and January, before the proceedings turned to hearing testimony from some members of Bountiful. According to Daphne Bramham, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun, the government’s experts held up the best.

«Evidence so far has been overwhelming that polygamy is inherently harmful to individuals and society,» she observed in her Jan. 7 column.

John Witte, Jr., the director of the Law and Religion Center at Emory University testified that there is a consistent, 2,500-year tradition of marriage as the monogamous union of two people, according to a report in the Jan. 10 edition of the Vancouver Sun.

«The longstanding consensus [of the harms] underscores that the prohibitions are both pre-Christian and post-Christian,» he said.

A graphic example of the harm that can occur came in later evidence, in which it was alleged that water torture of babies is common in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.


Carolyn Blackmore Jessop, who left the group in 2003, said it’s typically done by fathers and it’s called «breaking in,» the National Post reported Jan. 12. Its purpose is to install fear of authority, she explained.

Jessop explained that she left, with her eight children, because she felt powerless to protect her children from physical abuse. She was 18 years old when it was decided she should become the fourth wife of 50-year-old Merril Jessop.

Some of the current wives in the community gave testimony in a closed courtroom under the guarantee of anonymity. The public and the media listened via an audio link. For witness number two life in Bountiful was pleasant and there was no coercion, the Toronto Star reported Jan. 25.

She is in her mid-40s and she shares a husband with her biological sister. Between them they have 19 children. One of her daughters married at age 15. She admitted they lived at poverty level, but that was partly due to them sending money to fellow believers in the United States to fund their legal battles.

Witness number four believes she is in a «celestial marriage» ordained by God, the National Post reported, Jan. 27. Aged 16, she met her husband thirty minutes before the marriage ceremony. Six months later her husband took a new bride, a 15-year old girl.

According to the author of the article, Barbara Kay, women such as witness number four have been brainwashed through living in a community sealed off from the rest of the world.

The court also heard from some disenchanted former members of Bountiful. Truman Oler, the son of James Oler, a community leader with multiple wives, spoke about a community of distant fathers and neglected children, the National Post reported Jan. 25.

«Personally I can’t see why [FLDS adherents] have so many children if they don’t want to take care of them,» he told the court.

Further information about the state of the children came from Bruce Klette of B.C.’s Vital Statistics Agency. According to birth records for the period 1986-2009 there were 833 births to 215 mothers and 142 fathers, the Globe and Mail reported Jan. 27.

Just over 10% of children were born to girls aged 18 or under, compared to the provincial average of 2.7%. The ages of mothers and fathers were also further apart than the provincial figure of 4.6 years, at 8 years of difference. About 45% of mothers were born outside of Canada, mostly from Utah, compared with 30% of foreign mothers for B.C.

The article also noted that educational records for the two schools in Bountiful revealed that since 2003 only 25 students have completed Year 12.

Equal dignity

Commenting on the evidence that revealed the poor education standards, trafficking of brides, and abnormally rates of teen pregnancy, a January 31 editorial in the Globe and Mail urged that the law on polygamy should be upheld.

«Barring polygamy remains a reasonable limit on religious freedom and a potent reminder that the law must protect the vulnerable and the equality rights and human dignity of women and children,» the editorial stated.

A position not dissimilar from that of the Catholic Church.

The union between a husband and a wife has its roots in the natural complementarity that exists between man and woman, John Paul II explained in his 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family, «Familiaris Consortio.»

«Such a communion is radically contradicted by polygamy,» he affirmed. «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» (No. 19).

Now, in Canada, the consequences of the weakening of fundamental Christian values that long upheld the institution of marriage can be seen in the push to allow polygamy. It can only be hoped that Canada, which perhaps not coincidentally has legalized same-sex marriage, will not introduce by judicial fiat a further blow to marriage by allowing the exploitation of women and children.

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