British Columbia Supreme Court upholds anti-polygamy law

British Columbia Supreme Court upholds anti-polygamy law

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[JURIST] The Supreme Court of British Columbia [official website] ruled [judgment] on Wednesday that a law banning polygamy [Criminal Code §293 text] was constitutional. The law was under challenge by two bishops of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) who claimed that the law infringed on their religious freedom and was not consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms [text]. The court held, however, that:

[T]he salutary effects of the prohibition far outweigh the deleterious. The law seeks to advance the institution of monogamous marriage, a fundamental value in Western society from the earliest of times. It seeks to protect against the many harms which are reasonably apprehended to arise out of the practice of polygamy. Finally, and not insignificantly, the prohibition is consistent with, and furthers, Canada’s international human rights obligations. In my view, this adds very significant weight to the salutary effects side of the balance.

The court found that there were “a consistent set of harms associated with polygamy,” including a higher rate of sexual and physical abuse of women and higher rates of abuse, neglect and emotional problems for children. These harms, the court said, outweighed the “minimal” impact on religious freedom. The bishops’ sect of the FLDS has been linked to the Texas-based Yearning for Zion Ranch [NYT report] from which authorities seized 468 children [NYT report] in 2008. The court stated that the law should not apply to minors however.

Polygamy has been an issue throughout the world. In July a polygamous family brought suit challenging Utah’s ban on bigamy [JURIST report] as an unconstitutional violation of their civil rights. Polygamy is currently legal and recognized in much of Africa and the Middle East, while it is widely illegal in North and South America, Europe and China. Polygamy—called bigamy when illegal— is criminalized in every state in the US. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women [official website] in 2008 urged Saudi Arabia [JURIST news archive] to outlaw polygamy [JURIST report], which it said is by its very nature counter to gender equality. The year before Indonesia upheld marriage laws limiting polygamy [JURIST report], despite teachings in the predominantly Islamic country’s largest religion allowing men to take up to four wives. However, in 2006, a Canadian study urged the Canadian federal government to legalize polygamy [JURIST report] to help protect women and children in those relationships.