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Polygamy should never be linked with religious freedom

Lorna Dueck is Host of Context TV.

The verdict is in and polygamy is out for former bishops Winston Blackmore and James Oler of the fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints community in Bountiful, B.C.

Justice Sheri Ann Donegan ruled to uphold section 293 of the Criminal Code, which outlaws polygamy, and the offenders could face up to five years imprisonment for their multiple marrying ways.

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The gloves are off now as both Mr. Blackmore, who has 24 wives, and Mr. Oler, who has five, intend to argue that their religious practices, which harm women and children through polygamy, should be protected under constitutional rights to freedom of religion.

This matters to far more than a hidden-away community in southern British Columbia. Polygamy is actively practised across Canada by religious minorities. It's not a private crime, but because of its hidden nature, we have little idea of the victimization of women and girls in polygamy. The fact that it takes escape or a hearing before a judge for us to find out the realities of polygamy should have us on alert to letting this crime pass under religious freedom accommodation.

The 2011 B.C. legal challenge that upheld Canada's polygamy law put on record a scientific study led by University of British Columbia professor Joseph Henrich that detailed how polygamy increases sexual abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, higher infant and child mortality rates and intra-household conflict. It found polygamy decreased women's rights because, in polygynous societies, women are seen as a commodity to be attained. The heartbreaking testimony of freedom lost under the lie of religion was summed up for me in an earlier interview I did with polygamy victim Irene Spencer.

"I looked around me and I had been threatened all my life that I would go directly to hell if I didn't live polygamy and all of a sudden I woke up and realized that I already was in hell; they couldn't send me any place any darker or further, I was in despair and hopelessness. And around me I saw many women that had nervous breakdowns. I have nine nieces and nephews and one first cousin that have committed suicide and when you see the despair and the heartache, and I myself succumbed to a nervous breakdown and reached the lowest point in my life…" Ms. Spencer said in that interview. Ms. Spencer went on to escape being one of nine wives and wrote her story in Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife. She passed away earlier this year, but not before following Canada's debate on whether reasonable accommodation in the Canadian Constitution should be interpreted to allow religious people to hold more than one wife.

"It's abuse when young girls are told who they have to marry and they marry men old enough to be their fathers or their grandfathers. And it's abuse when mothers and daughters are married to the same man. And it's abuse when these children have no education. They run the boys out of town so the older men can marry the younger women," Ms. Spencer said.

If polygamy is an expression allowed because of the religious freedom we cherish, one has to ask, how can the social harm of polygamy be considered reasonably justified? The short answer is: It can't. As part of religious freedom laws in Canada there are limits based on the notion of reasonable accommodation as it relates to public interest. Doing no harm to the vulnerable should always trump religious freedom. Normally I find myself fighting for religious freedom, but when freedoms start to hurt others, that's when we reach for the greater good of love moving through law to protect those who need it most.

Video: Winston Blackmore not surprised by guilty verdict for polygamy (The Canadian Press)
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