Polygamist leader says BC attorney general guilty of religious persecution

The Canadian Press/Jun 3, 2008

Victoria - A BC religious leader who openly admits to having numerous wives and dozens of children is accusing the province's attorney general of religious persecution.

Winston Blackmore, one of two religious leaders of the polygamous community of Bountiful, said Wally Oppal appears determined to involve himself and his government in religious persecution against members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

In an e-mail to The Canadian Press, Blackmore said Oppal wants to force the Liberal government to persecute citizens.

"Mr. Oppal seems determined to involve himself in religious persecution," said Blackmore's e-mail. "It can't possibly be about polygamy. It must be about his own religious bias and now he wants the Liberal government to persecute some of the citizens that they have an obligation to serve and protect."

Oppal announced Monday he's appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the possibility of criminal charges ranging from sexual assault to polygamy with regard to Bountiful, and provide an opinion on the likelihood of a conviction.

Blackmore's response was terse: "I guess religious persecution by governments does happen in other countries."

About 800 people live in Bountiful, where members of the sect live a polygamous lifestyle in a secluded agricultural community in the shadow of the SkimmerhornMountains, minutes away from the southeastern B.C. logging and ranching community of Creston and the U.S. border at Idaho.

The sect is a breakaway offshoot of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

Oppal appointed a special prosecutor despite two earlier legal opinions saying that proceeding with criminal charges on polygamy would be difficult because anyone charged criminally under the prohibition of polygamy may decide to defend themselves on grounds that their rights to religious freedom are protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

One legal examination suggested launching a court challenge of the laws barring polygamy as opposed to a criminal prosecution.

But Oppal said public concerns about older men marrying young girls and men with multiple wives in Bountiful played a strong part in the decision to review charges.

"I take the public's view into consideration," Oppal said Monday.

"That's not the governing factor, but still, I think, all right-thinking people out in the public have informed us that they want us to do something here."

Oppal also said that Blackmore - who does not dispute that he lives a polygamous lifestyle - appears to be daring justice officials to charge him with polygamy.

"He hasn't said it in so many words, but he did throw out a question a week or so ago asking why it's taking us so long," said Oppal.

Blackmore, in earlier interviews with The Canadian Press at Bountiful, said he tried to meet with Oppal in the past but the minister refused.

Blackmore compared Oppal with jailed American polygamous leader Warren Jeffs, who is in prison for being an accomplice to rape. Jeffs was convicted in Utah last year of forcing a 14-year-old into marrying an older man.

The two men are on opposite sides of a power struggle in Bountiful that has divided the community to the point where some neighbours haven't spoken in six years.

Jeffs, who has hundreds of followers in Bountiful, is similar to Oppal for his use of legal experts to provide him with advice that he never uses, said Blackmore, alluding to Oppal's decision to reject the advice given by two previous lawyers.

"Our attorney general reminds me so much of Warren Jeffs," said Blackmore in April. "He went to great pains to get the very best legal opinion he could. He should go join him (Jeffs)."

But Oppal's decision to aggressively explore prosecutions at Bountiful on charges ranging from sexual abuse to polygamy is being cheered by organizations who want to stop the practice of multiple marriages in Canada.

"He's going after the right crimes," said Nancy Meraska, of Stop Polygamy Now, in an interview from Two Hills, Alta. "He wants a prosecution to go forward.

"For Winston Blackmore to say he is being persecuted and for him to hide behind the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is ludicrous."

The Constitution says not all rights in Canada, including freedom of religion, are absolute, Meraska said.

"Canada is the only first-world nation that has all the legal ammunition it needs to go after the crime of polygamy and win," she said.

Oppal said the recent apprehension of more than 400 children from a sister polygamous community in Texas has raised public interest about Bountiful, which B.C. justice officials have struggled with for more than two decades.

Authorities in Texas removed the children from their homes after they say they received calls to a domestic abuse hotline, purportedly from a 16-year-old in the community who said she was forced into a marriage with a man three times her age. That girl has not been found and authorities are investigating whether the call was a hoax.

But the Texas children, including at least one Canadian teenaged girl from Bountiful, were ordered released from state custody by the courts and began returning to their families this week.

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