'None of us are even married under ... the law'

Facing possible legal action, B.C. polygamous sect's deposed bishop denies having 26 wives and says he hopes for judicial fairness

Globe and Mail, Canada/May 28, 2008

Winston Blackmore, a former leader of a B.C. polygamist sect, says he is strongly opposed to new teachings in the religion that dictate how members dress and wear their hair, keep them away from computers and out of postsecondary schools, and isolate them from outsiders.

"It makes me sick," he said, to think about the "new training" followed by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Canada and at a Texas compound recently raided by authorities. Distancing himself from the FLDS and the teachings of its prophet Warren Jeffs, Mr. Blackmore said in an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail that the so-called revelations of Mr. Jeffs were inconsistent with the scriptures and "neither Christian, Mormon or decent."

In a series of e-mail exchanges with The Globe and Mail over the past three weeks, Mr. Blackmore said he expects to be treated fairly by B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal, who is reviewing advice on legal action against the polygamist community of Bountiful in the southeast corner of the province. "I hear that [Mr. Oppal] was a fair judge. For the sake of his career, I hope that it can be said of him that he was a fair politician," Mr. Blackmore said.

But Mr. Blackmore, a bishop in the religion from 1984 until he was shunned in 2002, is also counting on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect him.

"I hope our government has enough respect for the freedoms of its citizens to not allow a Texas-style religious persecution to happen under the skinny pretext that some polygamy law meant anything to anyone. Hell, none of us are even married under definition of the law, and most don't fit the definition of a common-law relationship either," he said.

"If there was not tens of thousands of people in B.C. that were involved in more than one ongoing relationship, then perhaps we wouldn't feel like we are being religiously persecuted and discriminated against." News media reports stating that he has 26 wives and 116 children are wrong, he added. "[The] fact is that I do not have 26 wives, never have had, never plan on it. And I do not have 116 kids," he said.

Pressed to specify how many wives and children he does have, Mr. Blackmore said: "I have no legal wives and lots of family members."

Last month, Texas child protection officials took into custody more than 450 children and youngsters under the age of 18, including at least one Canadian, after finding evidence of what they described as sexual abuse and a pervasive pattern of grooming children for underage sex.

Last week, a Texas court ruled that the evidence was not sufficient to justify the apprehension of all the children, and that the children should be returned to their families within 10 days.

Child-protection authorities, who are waiting for DNA results to confirm the identity of the mother and father of each child, appealed the court order. The Texas Child Protective Services told the court that child protection workers could not conclusively establish which children belonged to which parents. The court has not yet ruled on the appeal.

Mr. Jeffs, who has been the leader of the sect since his father, Rulon Jeffs, died in 2002, micromanaged the private lives of couples, breaking up hundreds of families for reasons that the prophet said were not yet revealed, according to Mr. Blackmore. Family units were "rearranged," children renamed and identities changed, he said.

Mr. Jeffs required his followers to cut all ties with outsiders, including Mr. Blackmore. The new teachings split the religious community, the insular neighbourhoods, even families. Mr. Blackmore said his brother Brandon, who supports Mr. Jeffs, has not gone to see their mother in six years, although she lives five blocks from him.

Mr. Blackmore said he was neither a member of a FLDS congregation nor a leader of any other religious community. "I keep busy and basically mind my own business," he said, adding that he acts in his capacity as a religious minister when called upon by others. Occasionally, he added, he meets with others who do not follow Mr. Jeffs.

Mr. Blackmore declined to give the name of his faith group. In 1990, he told a reporter that his sect, which he called the United Order Effort, was the true Mormon church.

Elder W. T. David Murray of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said a polygamist could not be a member of the Mormon church.

"[Polygamy] is not part of our belief. We do not have anything to do with it," he said in a phone interview from Toronto. Although polygamy was part of a fundamental belief of the church in the 19th century, the religion renounced it in 1890. Those who practice polygamy automatically lose church membership.

The FLDS broke from the mainstream Mormon Church (or was excommunicated from it, depending on which account you read) in the 1930s over the issue of polygamy.

Mr. Murray said he views polygamy as illegal behaviour. "I don't agree with it. I don't think it is right. It is against the laws of the land, and I believe it should be stopped," he said.

Mr. Blackmore said he has a book offer from a publisher, but he had not yet decided whether to publish his memoirs.

"It may be something that I write and then leave in my safe for a few years," he said. "I already have more attention than anyone can stand and don't want any more."

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