VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - The practice of multiple marriages by a breakaway Mormon sect in Western Canada cannot be stopped until the country's highest court confirms that a long-standing law against polygamy is constitutional, accord to a report released on Monday.
The Canadian group is part of the same sect led by jailed U.S. polygamist leader Warren Jeffs that saw its Texas ranch raided last week in an investigation into allegations of abuse brought by a young woman at the compound.
Canadian police have looked into claims of abuse at the community in Bountiful, British Columbia, but prosecutors have refused to take the sect to court out of fear the polygamy law would be tossed out as a violation of religious rights.
A report released on Monday by British Columbia's Criminal Justice Branch, which prosecutes crimes in the province, said the time has come for the Supreme Court of Canada to settle the issue, and it would be faster to ask the justices directly before any criminal charges are filed.
"Simply put, the abuses in Bountiful are unlikely to stop or be stopped until at least such time as the question of (the law's) constitutionality is conclusively resolved," Len Doust, a prominent Vancouver attorney wrote.
Doust said if the court tosses out the long-standing law against plural marriages then the federal government can decide if it wants to prohibit polygamy in a different way.
The Bountiful residents are part of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, and have been living in the community a short walk from the Idaho border since the late 1940s.
The FLDS is believed to have about 10,000 members in Utah, Arizona, Texas and British Columbia. The mainstream Mormon church banned polygamy in 1890, when the U.S. government threatened to deny Utah statehood.
The FLDS shuns outsiders but leaders of the group in Bountiful, where it is estimated to have about 1,000 members, have openly defended its polygamist practices.
Investigators in both Canada and the United States say the group's secrecy makes investigating allegations of abuse or polygamy extremely difficult because the victims are reluctant to co-operate.
Texas officials have removed at least 219 people including children and adults from a ranch belonging to the sect about 120 miles northwest of San Antonio.
U.S. authorities raided the property in response to allegations that a middle-aged man there had married and fathered a child with an underage girl.
Jeffs, the sect's self-proclaimed prophet, was convicted last year in Utah as an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old first cousin. He is also awaiting charges in Arizona.
Reporting Allan Dowd, Editing by Rob Wilson