The arrest of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs in the U.S. for forcing an underage girl to marry an older man, and recent removal of young women and children from the sect’s temple compound in the belief there may be more underage girls who have been married off, have again raised the question of when the British Columbia and federal governments will finally act against a similar sect in Bountiful, BC, led by Winston Blackmore. It’s no secret that the Bountiful sect practices polygamy and that polygamy is illegal in Canada. Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham has written extensively about the goings on in Bountiful. It’s featured on local TV news in Vancouver from time to time and, occasionally, there’s a story about it on national news broadcasts.
So, why doesn’t anyone do anything about it? They’re afraid. They’re afraid any prosecution will fail because it will violate the Charter of Rights. They may, by extension, be afraid of being sued for violating someone’s rights. You see, whoever drafted the Charter included some stuff about freedom of religion, as opposed to freedom of views on the subject of religion, that could be construed as meaning there is no higher principle than one’s religious values. The result is that BC’s Solicitor General, Wally Oppal, has been waiting for months - although it seems years - for advice as to whether or not prosecution would be constitutional. I hope he gets it soon and, if it wouldn’t be, that changes will be made to the Charter.
The core conflict was summed up by one of the American sect members in a televised interview with the CBC a couple nights ago. He said it doesn’t matter if the girls are underage. He pointed out that the Book of Mormon instructs him to take many young women. He then made the definitive statement, “When it comes to an issue of whether I choose to obey the law of god or the law of the land, I choose to obey the law of god.” That is the situation in a nutshell. Do religious rights supercede secular laws or are they subject to secular laws? Do secular laws supercede religious rights or are there different laws for different people?
If we allow different laws for different people, how will we decide who gets special treatment and who doesn’t? There have already been some special, and controversial, exemptions on religious grounds upheld by the courts. Sikhs in the RCMP can wear turbans instead of hats, for instance. On the other hand, a request some years ago by a muslim group to allow the use of Shar’ia law within their own community was denied. That would seem to represent a precedent. The underlying principle was that you can’t have a group of people enforcing a different set of laws. There has to be one set of laws for all the people. I like underlying principles. They are something you can build on. They are a solid foundation.
There is nothing stopping the BC government from laying charges under the current laws of the land. Polygamy is illegal. If the members of this particular religion want to challenge the charges under the Charter of Rights, let them. Let it be decided by the courts. One of two things will happen. Either the principle that secular laws supercede religious rights will be firmly established, or the opposite will be. If it’s the latter, I’m sure enough people will be sufficiently reviled by their Charter of Rights upholding polygamy and the partnering of young girls with old men that some changes to the Charter may actually be possible. The changes would have to make it clear secular laws come before religious codes, that there are principles that outrank religious belief. Those changes could even accommodate atheists and agnostics, recognizing their equal rights. If things go really well, maybe we could even lose those opening words recognizing that there is a god. They only serve to snub non-believers, after all.
What is the BC government afraid of? Is it the legal costs? Are they really going to allow some religious nuts to flout the law to save a few million dollars in legal fees? Is it the constitutional issues? Are politicians really so afraid of constitutional talks that they’d allow archaic traditions that exploit young girls to go on in a country that prides itself on, and, in many ways takes its identity from, being progressive?
Once again, the issue appears to be leadership. No doubt the BC and federal governments will adopt a wait and see attitude. Wait for the Americans to do something and see what happens. I say go after them. If they challenge under the Charter, fight them. Dare to establish a precedent and a principle. If the Charter is flawed, change it. Bring it on.