CALGARY - The spiritual leader of a polygamist community in British Columbia says underage girls marry members of his church, but do so legally with parental consent.
"In none of these cases are these people being forced to marry anybody," says Winston Blackmore, 44, the Canadian leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Marriages of youths as young as 16 are allowed in Canada and the United States with parental consent, and as young as 15 with parental consent and the approval of a juvenile court judge.
In an interview with the National Post, Mr. Blackmore denied reports a 16-year-old American girl, Nichole Holm, was married without parental consent to a church member in Utah and taken to his rural community near Lister, B.C., on the Idaho border.
The Utah Attorney-General's Department also denies reports it is investigating arranged marriages of underage girls to members of the Church -- a breakaway sect of the Mormon church -- that openly practises polygamy.
The fundamentalist sect has two main communities, one in Lister and another in Colorado City, Ariz., on the Utah border.
"She [Nichole Holm] is not here in Canada," Mr. Blackmore said. "She came as a visitor and she's back in Arizona and she has a job there."
The girl's mother, Lenore Holm, a disaffected church member, confirms her daughter is living in Colorado City as the promised wife of a 38-year-old fundamentalist who is already married.
"I don't know whether she's married to him or not. She won't speak to me," Ms. Holm said.
She said the Church has excommunicated her and her husband, Milton, for refusing permission for Nichole, her daughter by a previous marriage, to marry.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes it is the true keeper of the founding principles of the Mormon faith. The Mormons formally disavowed multiple marriages in 1890 and strengthened the ban in 1904 under pressure from the U.S. Congress and the courts.
Fundamentalists kept the practice alive and believe John Taylor, the Church's president, had an all-night conversation with God about plural marriage in 1886.
They were excommunicated by the mainstream Latter-day Saints in 1935 after they refused to sign a loyalty oath renouncing polygamy.
Members usually marry their first wife under provincial or state law and marry their other wives "in the eyes of God." "You can have only one marriage licence in the country," said Mr. Blackmore, who is reported to have up to 30 wives and 80 children.
Mr. Blackmore admits to having more than one wife but says he will not discuss his personal life in detail. "We view our relationships as no more strange than other kinds of relationships that are accepted in the world today that seem strange to us," he said.
Although polygamy is illegal under the Criminal Code, British Columbia has not prosecuted the Lister polygamists due to potential constitutional challenges relating to religious freedoms.