Polygamous men conspicuous by their absence from hearings

Fate of Canada's polygamy law depends on the sister-wives' testimony, which is odd considering it is primarily men who have multiple wives

Vancouver Sun, Canada/January 29, 2011

Happy polygamists were strangely absent through eight weeks of court hearings aimed at determining whether Canada's law forbidding the practice is constitutional.

Perhaps it's because not one male polygamist testified before Chief Justice Robert Bauman in B.C. Supreme Court. It's odd when you think about it because worldwide and throughout history, polygamy is almost invariably men having multiple wives.

The bishop of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, James Oler, filed an affidavit describing how polygamy was an essential part of his faith. But that was pulled when it became apparent that lawyers for the governments of Canada and British Columbia were eager to have a chance to question him.

The same happened with FLDS school principal Merrill Palmer.

Neither the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association nor the court-appointed amicus curiae, George Macintosh, called any secular polygamists even though several men and women filed affidavits. Also absent were Muslims, even though Islam is one of only two religions that sanction the practice and Islam's followers number 940,000 in Canada.

Even though Bauman allowed the FLDS to testify anonymously to avoid future prosecution, it was left to fundamentalist Mormon women -- the sister-wives -- to defend the practice.

Ironic, since everyone testified that it's the men who head their communities, their homes and ensure the women's ascension into heaven. Every one of the women described polygamy as challenging, even though all insisted that the rewards on Earth and in the afterlife are worth it.

And far from establishing that polygamy is not inherently harmful, many of the pro-polygamy witnesses reinforced and highlighted some of its most reprehensible consequences. Those consequences, laid out in the hearing's early days by an economist, an ethnographer and a legal and religious scholar who studies marriage, include early sexualization of girls, downward pressure on the marriage age of girls, poverty, and low educational attainment for both girls and boys. Under cross-examination, a 24-year-old said it was God's will that her 15-year-old sister-wife married a pillar of the Bountiful community more than twice her age.

A mother of nine testified to her cruel choice: Allow her 15-year-old to have a monogamous marriage to a 19-year-old man or face the prospect that her daughter would become a plural wife to a much older man.

The mother also talked about her own awful choice at 17: Marry or never go to college. A 22-year-old insisted women can refuse the prophet's choice of husband. But she admitted that what the choice really comes down to is: Obey God or disobey the Lord.

The prophet she referred to is Warren Jeffs, who is in a Texas jail awaiting trial on two counts of child sexual abuse and bigamy.

The 22-year-old testified that she'd never been taught sex education in school. She also learned in court that her high-school diploma from the government-funded Bountiful elementary-secondary school, where she is a teacher, isn't accepted at B.C. universities because the school isn't accredited for Grades 11 and 12. To find any polygamous men and merry polygamous wives, Bauman will have to read the affidavits.

And if anyone had any thoughts that by decriminalizing polygamy, the insular, isolated fundamentalist Mormon communities might move closer to the mainstream, the witnesses denied it.

They made it clear that they want the economic benefits of Canadian society, but they're not prepared to take on all the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship. The only male witness who lived in a polygamous community was 29-year-old Truman Oler. He grew up in a Bountiful family of six mothers and 47 children. As he attested, polygamy is perilous for young men.

The exponential result of even the simple arithmetic is shocking, as Prof. Joseph Henrich laid out in his affidavit. If there are 20 men and 20 women and five men take a second wife, two take a third and one takes a fourth, it means that 40 per cent of the men will have no chance at marriage.

At best, young men are vulnerable to exploitation as labourers as they try to curry favour with church authorities. Even then, they must be willing to take whichever bride is offered or risk excommunication.

Truman Oler wanted none of it even though the outside world terrified him and his Grade 9 education gave him few job opportunities. He is one of close to 20 young men from Bountiful -- population 1,000 -- who have left within the last decade.

After he left, far from being proud of her son for finishing high school and getting his heavy-duty mechanic's certification, his mother, a teacher at Bountiful elementary-secondary school, told him that she wished he were dead. But what Truman Oler said about Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms moved everyone in the courtroom.

In Bountiful, he'd been told that the Charter protected religious freedom and the right to practise polygamy.

But when he read it recently, Truman Oler said, "I realized that in teaching that one religion [in Bountiful], they are taking away all of the other rights in the Charter." It's the conflicting rights of religion, expression, equality and liberty that will be at the heart of the hearing's next phase, scheduled to start the last week in March.

Over two to three weeks, the lawyers will make their closing arguments. Only then will the chief justice start to weigh the evidence and the argument.

Regardless of what he decides, it's almost certain that he won't be the last judge to hear the cases for and against polygamy.

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