Oh, I would sing and
dance with rejoicing if celestial [polygamous] marriage was no longer
considered criminal. I believe in my religion and way of life. Our family could
all take the same last name. We would be able to have the benefits of Canada as
other Canadians have. We would use the money we spend on fighting for our
religion to build nice housing for the families… We would be able to live in
That was Witness
speaking in the British Columbia (Canada) Supreme Court about the alleged
religious rights of a breakaway Mormon sect to practice polygamy.
According to the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter Day Saints) and others on the side of decriminalizing polygamy,
Canada, the land of hope and freedom, is persecuting some of its most
vulnerable citizens — men and women who choose to peacefully express a
minority religion, who ask nothing more than to be left alone and not live in
the daily fear of being jailed and harassed for their faith.
Is this possible? In a country that takes minority rights so
seriously that entire institutions are dedicated to weeding out even the
smallest hints of prejudice? What have we become?
But wait a minute, this religious minority is also accused
of involvement in the trafficking and abuse of young teenaged girls, subjecting
children to dysfunctional and abusive families, exploiting young men, trapping
women in a world of pain, the flagrant and public breech of laws that would
protect the most vulnerable. Is it possible that Canada has turned a blind eye
to all of this?
And what will happen now that the judiciary has to decide
which should prevail: freedom of religion, or some of the most basic values and
norms of Canadian society?
The question pits Canada’s anti-polygamy law, section
293 of the Criminal Code, against the Canadian Charter or Rights and
Freedom guarantee to “freedom of conscience and religion” — in this case the
freedom of a FLDS/Mormon offshoot community in Bountiful B.C. This community
believes that “plural marriages” are necessary in order to reach the Celestial
Opposing that claim is a collection
of organizations who contend that the abuses of polygamy are so grievous, and
the harm to individuals and societies so great, that the law is a justifiable
infringement on religious and individual rights.
What kinds of harm? Allegations against FLDS members include
of babies (holding children face up under a running tap if they cry when
as young as 12 or 14 (statutory rape), sexual, mental, and physical abuse
of children, immigration
(due to shortage of brides), forced/coerced marriage, and more.
Perhaps some of the most affecting testimony came
quoted above. She learned the identity of her much older husband thirty minutes
before she married him as a just turned 17 year old, crossed the Canadian
boarder under false pretences, and came to live with him and her other three
“sister-wives”. Six months later, with no prior notice or consultation with his
other wives, her husband married a 15 year old girl, who enrolled in grade nine
that year as a married woman. It never occurred to anyone involved that this
might be in any way improper. No one called the authorities. The marriage must
have been a revelation from God and, therefore, it was right.
is told by a woman who refused, as a 13 year old, to marry the prophet Rulon
Jeffs, then in his 80s. For this she was sent to work for a Bountiful lumber
business. Laboring in sub zero conditions without proper protective clothing,
she was reminded again and again by the “authorities” that if she would just
submit to an arranged marriage it could all end. Trapped, terrified, and
abandoned by her family she finally gave way and agreed to married, at the age
But is this kind of harm, or any harm, inherent in polygamy?
Surely monogamy has its own problems?
Dr. Margaret Somerville, Samuel Gale Professor of Law at
McGill University, in an interview with MercatorNet suggests that while not all
alleged harms are inherent in polygamy, some indeed are.
“My primary objection would be for the children… I believe
that family units are primarily for the benefit of the children. Of course they
are for the benefit of the adults involved as well, but if there is a clash
between what adults want and what children need I give priority to the
“Children are best off with their mother and father,
preferably their own biological parents unless an exception is justified as
being in the best interests of a particular child… Polygamy is an alternative
adult arrangement, which is also difficult for some of the children who become
adults within that arrangement.” (Note the abuses chronicled above.)
contend that the abuses chronicled in Bountiful, by both supporters and
detractors are best fought by the legalization of polygamy. Some point to the
idyllic picture of peace, love, and cooperation painted by many of the
polygamous women, and suggest
that the needs of the vulnerable would rather be served by bringing
polygamy into the open, where abuse could be reported by women no longer afraid
of prosecution for polygamy, and where justice and freedom of religion could
But does society have a larger interest in banning polygamy?
If some of these abuses are inherent to polygamy, can even legalizing it help?
What could this do to the moral fabric of our society?
Margaret Somerville again speaks of the danger of redefining
marriage, particularly for children. She has contended for years that allowing
same sex marriage (as has been done in Canada), would make it difficult to
justify shutting the door on polygamy.
“If you say that marriage is simply a social or cultural
construct, which is what same-sex marriage says it is, and it has nothing to do
with giving a child his own biological parents, then you could say that we
could design marriage however we like. It could be four men and three women, or
whatever you want to have.
“What a monogamous relationship, one man and one woman, does
is that it builds marriage around a biological reality. Actually, unlike same
sex marriage, polygamy also builds marriage around a biological reality too but
it doesn’t do it equally between men and women.
“I think it’s a matter of both biology and cultural values,
and our western democratic societies’ cultural values are most definitely [in
favour of] one man and one woman, and polygamy threatens that just as same sex
marriage threatened that. Polygamy threatens it on the monogamous level, same
sex marriage threatened it on the biological level.”
“Once you move away from that fundamental monogamous
procreational relationship… you start designing marriage however you like it,
whether it is same sex marriage, whether it is polygamy either in the form of polygyny
(one man with many wives) or polyandry (one woman with many husbands).” Or,
indeed, what some of the sexual avant garde are calling “polyamory”.
The children and women of Bountiful tell stories of
wrenching abuse, and peaceful contentment. The Supreme Court is given a simple
but difficult and critical choice. To choose to restrict the religious practice
of some in the interests of preserving the traditional values of Canadian
culture, or to accede to another redefinition of marriage and accept the collateral
of broken lives in the name of freedom.
Freedom, we may ask, for whom?
Hebbert lives in Ontario, Canada, and is studying economics.