The oddball alliances in the polygamy battle

Polyamorists, civil libertarians, supporters of Holocaust deniers square off against B.C. teachers, a Catholic family coalition, REAL Women

The Vancouver Sun/April 7, 2010

It's a rare day when feminists, conservative Christians, anti-abortionists, Muslim women and child advocates join forces.

The aphorism "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" is apt summation of how the two sides will line up at the B.C. Supreme Court hearing to determine the constitutionality of Canada's anti-polygamy law.

The above-mentioned support both the provincial and national government's position that the criminal offence of polygamy is lawful and is not a breach of constitutionally guaranteed rights.

And while it's less rare to see odd groupings of libertarians, among the odder collections are polyamorists (who believe in having more than one intimate relationship at a time with members of either sex as long as there is consent from everyone involved), the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, fundamentalist Mormons and a group that defends Holocaust deniers who will argue that polygamy ought to be legal.

Twelve groups have been accepted to intervene in this unusual case, which proceeds as a trial and not simply as a reference case to an appeal court.

The interveners will be allowed to present documents, make verbal and written arguments as well as call witnesses.

So many lawyers are expected that Chief Justice Robert Bauman is contemplating moving the hearing to the Federal Court's Vancouver courtroom, which is better set up for all the lawyers.

On the no side, Stop Polygamy in Canada is as unequivocal as its name suggests. The 150-member coalition includes the international group Women Living Under Muslim Law.

It states flatly, "There are no equality rights for women and children in polygamous relationships."

Groups including the B.C. Teachers Federation, Beyond Borders, the Catholic Organization for Life and Family, Canadian Coalition for Rights of the Child and the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights will focus almost exclusively on the harm done to boys and girls including the denial of their rights of choice (including education) and free expression.

REAL Women's aim is to "promote, secure and defend legislation which upholds the Judeo-Christian view of traditional marriage and the family."

Yet it sounds surprisingly, stridently feminist in its application for intervener status when it says that polygamy "is likely to oppress women and their equality rights reducing them to become more chattels than equal partners."

But the polygamy issue is complicated enough that there is room for wide gaps between proponents on either side, ranging from the certitude of Stop Polygamy, REAL Women and the Christian Legal Fellowship on one side and the Canadian Polyamory Association and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on the other.

In between are the West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) and the Civil Liberties Association. Both believe the existing law is badly written and may well be unconstitutional.

Executive director Alison Brewin says LEAF opposes polygamy when it involves "minors, exploitation, coercion, abuse of authority, a gross imbalance of power or undue influence." LEAF will argue the law should be rewritten or enforced only where polygamy is "exploitive or abusive of the women and children involved."

Conversely, the Civil Liberties Association argues against rewriting the law, saying prohibition is "an inappropriate method of addressing the social problems related to its practice."

It suggests criminalizing polygamy drives it underground and makes it harder for the state to address "the real dangers faced by vulnerable members."

That's not the view of the FLDS (whose members comprise half the population of the polygamous community of Bountiful), the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association and Canadians for Free Expression, represented by Victoria lawyer Doug Christie.

The FLDS will argue its religious right of men to take multiple wives, while both Christie and the polyamorists will argue the state has no right to intervene in sexual relationships that are voluntary and consensual.

What the polyamorists have to say suggests how far some Canadians have strayed from traditional families.

They plan to provide evidence of how widespread the practice is, how different it is from "patriarchal polygyny" as well as the personal and social benefits it provides.

In their submission, polyamory is described as configurations of same gender or different genders and different sexual orientations where no gender or sexual orientation has special privileges or is "regarded as superior to any other."

Their submission makes no reference to children within those relationships.

However, all of the interveners -- except the FLDS -- specifically and unequivocally draw the line when polygamy involves minors, exploitation and abuse of authority.

But there are already laws that are supposed to protect women and children.

The question is: Are we willing to condone polygamy?

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