Vancouver, Canada - The woman known as “Witness No.8” says she does not understand why polygamy should be illegal, and her court testimony is offering a glimpse into a religious sect that has vexed officials for years.
The Arizona woman is a member of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway sect from the mainstream Mormon church based in Utah with an estimated 10,000 members in the United States and Canada.
FLDS members have historically shunned talking about their lives with outsiders to protect their religious tenet of polygamy, which is illegal in the United States and Canada.
But a Canadian judge has begun a special judicial inquiry to examine whether a Canadian anti-polygamy law violates protections of religious freedom or is still needed to protect women’s rights and deal with a variety of social problems.
Prosecutors asked for the inquiry into the law’s constitutionality before any push to file any charges against members of the sect’s community called Bountiful, located in eastern British Columbia near the Idaho border.
The court in Vancouver has allowed church members from Canada and the United States to testify about their lives anonymously, to counter their concern that the information will later be used against them by police.
“We are beginning an historic reference,” British Columbia Supreme Court chief justice Robert Bauman said on Nov. 22 at the opening day of the inquiry, which is expected to take more than two months to complete.
INTO THE AFTERLIFE
The fundamentalist church, headquartered in Colorado City, Arizona, split from the Mormon church in the early 20th century over the main church’s decision in the 1890s to renounce polygamy in face of U.S. government pressure.
FLDS memebers believe that a man must have multiple wives to follow the will of God and advance in the afterlife, and “celestial marriages” help protect women and children from social ills and poverty in old age, the court has been told.
In practice, fundamentalist men have only one legal wife with other wives recognized in that role only by their faith. Law enforcement officials contend that is still illegal.
Polygamy has recently acquired a North American pop culture vogue with cable television programs such as Sister Wives and Big Love.
But the FLDS may be best known for the 2008 raid on its Texas compound and allegations its self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs forced young girls to marry older men.
The church, backed by some civil rights groups that are participating in the inquiry, says the Canadian law violates their right to practice their religion.
“The criminal prohibition of polygamy baffles me,” Witness No. 8 wrote in an affidavit. She said she was raised in a fundamentalist Mormon family, has a college degree in education, and shares her husband with a “sister wife.”
“How do you truly force human minds to believe that which they don’t?” she wrote, denouncing efforts to end polygamy.
DO AS YOU ARE TOLD
Prosecutors, who want the law upheld, told the court that a desire to practice religious beliefs does not absolve people from obeying laws intended to prevent other social harms.
They have given the court statements from opponents of polygamy who say the practice subjugates women and claim that FLDS leaders force underage girls to marry older men and abandon some boys so other men can have more wives.
The affidavit of a former FLDS member said young men must do extra favors for church elders to be given a wife, and women are taught only to have many babies and obey the men.
“You are told what to do,” Truman Oler, 28, wrote the court. “If you don’t follow the path you will lose everything .”
Documents filed by church members in support of polygamy acknowledge dissent within the group about the issue.
Witness No. 12, a Texas woman, said several of her 10 sons have left the sect and one later even tried to “unconvert” her. “I didn’t listen very well,” she wrote about rejecting that attempt. Her five daughters remain in the FLDS.
The church’s witnesses at the inquiry deny seeing any abuses, and one complained in an affidavit that her family cannot escape poverty because the church has been forced by the U.S. government to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees and other costs to keep its leaders out jail.
Justice Bauman is expected to hear expert witnesses testify on the potential impacts of overturning the current polygamy law on other religions in Canada, including Islam, as well as on Canada’s international legal obligations.
Canada’s anti-polygamy law dates to the 1890s, but has rarely been enforced. British Columbia began looking at prosecuting the FLDS in recent years after being accused by women’s rights advocates of ignoring the issue.
Canada’s courts have tangled with other thorny religious issues in recent years, including gay marriage, which is now legal after bans against it were declared unconstitutional.