VANCOUVER, British Columbia – British Columbia's Supreme Court is being asked to decide if polygamy should remain illegal in Canada, the province's attorney general announced Thursday.
Attorney General Mike de Jong said he believes polygamy is against the law and should remain so, but he said the justice system needs clarity about whether Canada's law barring multiple marriages is constitutional.
Two Canadian laws stand in contradiction: Polygamy is banned, and religious freedoms are firmly protected.
The move comes a month after a judge quashed polygamy charges against two leaders of a polygamous community in western Canada. The judge ruled the province did not have the authority to appoint a special prosecutor to consider the cases of Winston Blackmore and James Oler after previous prosecutors recommended against charges.
The government has decided to seek the British Columbia Supreme Court opinion rather than appeal that court ruling. De Jong said the case may ultimately have to be decided by the Supreme Court of Canada.
The men maintain their polygamous practices are covered by Canada's protection of freedom of religion.
Blackmore was accused of having 19 wives and Oler, three.
Phone calls to Blackmore weren't answered, and there was no immediate response to an e-mail request for comment.
Blackmore, long known as "the Bishop of Bountiful," runs an independent sect of about 400 members in the town of Bountiful. He once ran the Canadian arm of the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but was ejected in 2003 by that group's leader, Warren Jeffs.
Oler is the bishop of Bountiful's FLDS community loyal to Jeffs. Even though many of the town's residents are related or have the same last name, followers of the two leaders are splintered and are not allowed to talk with each other.
FLDS members practice polygamy in arranged marriages, a tradition tied to the early theology of the Mormon church. Mormons renounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah's statehood.
The men had petitioned the court to drop the polygamy charges, arguing that the attorney general had gone "special prosecutor shopping" until he found someone who would go ahead with charges.
Blackmore said the whole issue was resolved in 1992 when another special prosecutor decided not to proceed with charges. The case would have been the first test of Canada's polygamy laws under Canada's constitution.
Last year, British Columbia's former attorney general appointed a special prosecutor to look into allegations of criminal abuse at Bountiful despite earlier legal opinions that said it would be difficult to proceed with criminal charges for polygamy itself.
De Jong said he supported the earlier decision by his predecessor to take the polygamy cases against Oler and Blackmore to court.
Blackmore openly acknowledges having numerous wives and dozens of children but has said his community abhors sexual abuse of children. The charges would have carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Last year, Texas authorities raided an FLDS ranch and put more than 400 children into foster care. The children were returned to their parents after the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state overstepped in removing all the children when it only had evidence of abuse or neglect involving about a half-dozen teenage girls.
The FLDS, with an estimated 10,000 members, is headquartered in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. In 1947, a small group moved just across the border into Lister, British Columbia. The newcomers dubbed the pristine spot at the base of a snowy mountain range Bountiful.
Besides an estimated 1,000 Canadians living in Bountiful, the U.S. Embassy estimates there are about 300 Americans there who are loyal to Blackmore and 200 others who follow Jeffs, who is in an Arizona jail awaiting trial on charges related to alleged underage marriages involving sect girls.
In September 2007, a Utah jury convicted Jeffs of two counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in the 2001 marriage of an underage follower to her husband. He was sentenced to two consecutive prison terms of five years to life.