Polygamy law intrusive, rights group tells court

The Toronto Star/March 17, 2011

Vancouver - Canada's ban on polygamy invites the state into the bedrooms of consenting adults, says a B.C. civil rights group that is siding with a controversial religious sect in a landmark court case on the federal law barring multiple marriage.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has filed a final argument in B.C. Supreme Court against the polygamy law, saying it is a Victorian-era statute that should be "relegated to the scrap heap of history."

"It invites the state to inspect the bedrooms - and kitchens and living rooms - of consenting adults who find fulfillment in plural relationships," association lawyer Monique Pongracic-Speier said in a statement Thursday.

"It erodes the dignity of people involved in those relationships and denies them the privacy that is available to couples and monogamous families."

Individuals should be free to make the life choices they wish, so long as those choices do not harm others and are made with informed consent, she said.

Final arguments in the case will begin later this month in B.C. Supreme Court, which has heard months of testimony both for and against upholding the federal law, including conflicting expert testimony about whether the practice of multiple marriage is inherently harmful to women and children.

Written arguments have already been filed by several interveners in the case, as well as the federal and provincial governments.

Both levels of government are defending the law, arguing polygamy is inherently harmful and must be kept illegal. They've alleged multiple marriage inevitably leads to sexual and physical abuse, child brides, teen pregnancies and the trafficking of young girls to be married.

Provincial government lawyer Craig Jones, a former president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said polygamy harms not just the people involved in polygamous families, but also society as a whole.

"There is a significant increased risk to women and children in polygamous households ... and second, there are significant and measurable harms to a society in which polygamy is practised," Jones said in his written final submission.

"These latter social harms are felt regardless of whether any particular polygamous relationship is 'good' or 'bad.' "

Jones rejected the argument that polygamy is a religious practice that must be protected, saying such protection doesn't extend to practices that are harmful.

The court has also heard explosive allegations that B.C. girls as young as 12 have been married off to jailed American polygamist Warren Jeffs, the "prophet" of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway sect from the mainstream Mormon church. The mainstream church abandoned polygamy more than a century ago.

The constitutional reference case before the B.C. court was prompted by the failed polygamy prosecution of two religious leaders from Bountiful, in southeastern B.C., a branch of the FLDS.

Documents filed with the court allege three girls - two 12-year-olds and a 13-year-old - were taken to the United States by their parents and married to Jeffs, who was in his late 40s and early 50s at the time. He is currently in a Texas jail awaiting trial on charges of sexual assault and bigamy.

Five other girls from Bountiful, between the ages of 16 and 18, were married to other American men, according to the documents.

The B.C. civil rights group said it, too, is concerned about allegations of child abuse and sexual interference but argued that criminal activity should be investigated and prosecuted whether it occurs in polygamous or monogamous relationships.

The group said officials should focus on enforcing laws on the age of consent, sexual abuse and school attendance.

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