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Utah watching B.C. case examining polygamy trials

Winston Blackmore the religious leader of the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C. shares a laugh with six of his daughters and some of his grandchildren, in this April 21, 2008 photo.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Utah's attorney-general is keeping an eye on a B.C. court case examining Canada's polygamy laws, as the state struggles to deal with tens of thousands of fundamentalist Mormons who believe in multiple marriage.

But the state has taken a different approach to dealing with the closed polygamous compounds that dot the region's mountainous landscape, limiting prosecution to clear-cut cases of abuse and reaching out to fundamentalist Mormon communities to ensure children and women have access to help.

Utah is the home of the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago, but the Rocky Mountain region of Utah and Arizona is also home to nearly 40,000 fundamentalist Mormons who practise polygamy.

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They include the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, which is linked to Bountiful, B.C.

Rather than prosecuting thousands of residents under Utah's bigamy statute, the state - along with neighbouring Arizona - has decided polygamy will only be prosecuted in cases that also involve allegations of harm, such as physical and sexual abuse, underage marriage or incest.

They've also created a group called the Safety Net Committee to work with fundamentalist Mormons to ensure women and children know their rights and have access to government services and law enforcement. The committee includes government agencies, non-profit groups and polygamous communities.

"We've been doing our best to prevent crime from taking place by educating and making sure that people within those communities trust the government enough that, if they're a victim of a crime, they're willing to come forward," Paul Murphy, a spokesman for Utah's attorney-general, said in an interview.

"There doesn't seem to be the will to go and lock up 10,000 men and women and find foster care for another 20,000 children."

He said Utah still struggles with the law itself, and has yet to settle on whether polygamy should remain illegal.

"Canada is grappling with the same issue we are," said Mr. Murphy.

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"Right now, polygamy is against the law, but it's a law that, for the most part, isn't being enforced anywhere. Eventually, people are going to have to decide - and the courts here will probably decide - whether or not states can still regulate marriage and forbid polygamy."

Utah and Arizona aggressively went after polygamists in the early 1900s, which culminated in the infamous Short Creek raid of 1953. Short Creek straddled the Arizona-Utah boundary and has since become the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., which are effectively run by the FLDS.

The raid prompted dozens of prosecutions, but it was largely seen as a public-relations disaster as the state removed children from their parents. In the end, the children were returned to their families, which continued to practise polygamy.

Decades went by without any significant prosecutions, said Mr. Murphy, until about 10 years ago, when a man named Tom Green was convicted of bigamy and child rape charges.

There have been a handful of polygamy-related cases since, typically related to crimes such as unlawful sex with a minor.

The highest-profile prosecution has targeted FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, who was convicted in Utah in a case stemming from the marriage of an underage girl. His conviction was overturned in 2007 and Utah prosecutors have yet to decide whether to retry Jeffs, although he is also awaiting trial on bigamy and child-sex-abuse charges in Texas.

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Prosecutors in Texas took a more aggressive approach to deal with the FLDS, which established the Yearning for Zion Ranch in 2003. In 2008, the ranch was targeted in a sensational raid that saw the state seize more than 400 children. Most of the children were eventually returned to their families, but seven men were convicted of child-sexual assault and abuse.

In contrast, Canada hadn't seen a polygamy prosecution in more than 70 years when, in 2009, police moved into Bountiful, B.C., and arrested the community's two leaders.

Winston Blackmore and James Oler were each charged with practising polygamy, but the charges were thrown out, prompting the province to launch the current constitutional case.

The court hearings were postponed Monday but are expected to resume Tuesday to hear testimony from women from Bountiful.

The community had been under investigation for more than 20 years, but prosecutors repeatedly shied away from laying charges over fears the polygamy law wouldn't withstand a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Linda Smith, a professor at University of Utah's law school who has written about the FLDS and the Texas raid, said Utah realizes high-profile raids and indiscriminate prosecutions do more harm than good - especially for children.

"After what happened in Short Creek, the government in Utah became convinced that it wasn't very functional to take children away from their parents to convince their parents to change what is really a social structure," said Ms. Smith.

In Texas, where the FLDS are relative newcomers to the state, Ms. Smith said the tougher approach appears to be an attempt to drive them away. She noted the state toughened its polygamy and statutory rape laws after the FLDS moved in.

"They wanted to drive the FLDS out of Texas," said Ms. Smith, who argues the 2008 raid in Texas didn't turn out much better than the disastrous Short Creek raid a half-century earlier.

"It was an ultimate fiasco, because you had little two-year-old or one-year-old kids away from their primary caregivers for months."

The Canadian Press

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