In B.C. Supreme Court today, William Blackmore of the “Bountiful” religious community was expected to challenge the Criminal Code offense of polygamy as violating his religious freedom, among other issues.
Section 293 of the Criminal Code makes it an indictable offense – punishable by up to five years in prison – to agree or enter any conjugal union with more than one person at the same time. It does not require any harm to or lack of consent by the other spouse.
Mr. Blackmore was convicted of polygamy this July for having 24 wives. He had not disputed that he engaged in multiple marriages, and unsuccessfully argued that there should have to be some harm, compulsion or abuse for him to be found guilty of an offense.
This followed numerous court proceedings over the past decade, including an extensive reference case at the B.C. Supreme Court on whether the offense is constitutionally valid. After considering social science evidence and constitutional issues including freedom of religion under the Charter that reference upheld the polygamy offence. The Judge found that it violated freedom of religion (s. 2) but that it was justified under s. 1. This was based largely on the premise that polygamy correlates with various social and psychological harms to women and children, and that it undermines the benefits of traditional marriages. However, this constitutional question has never been tested by an appeals court or the Supreme Court of Canada.
Blackmore’s lawyer was in court today to begin arguments that the conviction should be stayed due to a violation of religious freedom. However, due to procedural issues with late notice, the hearing has been adjourned until December 11.
Then, the long-running debate on whether the state can prohibit polygamy itself will surely continue.
This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA or PBSC.