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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A Canadian judge dismissed polygamy charges against members of a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church on Wednesday, but the ruling left unanswered whether the century-old law against plural marriages violated religious rights.
The judge sided with Winston Blackmore, one of two defendants, who argued that provincial officials did not have the right to appoint the special prosecutor who filed the criminal charges, because an earlier special prosecutor had declined to do so.
Because the special prosecutor's appointment was illegal his decision to file charges against Blackmore and James Oler was also unlawful, British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Sunni Stromberg-Stein ruled.
"It is inconsistent with (the special prosecutors act) for the attorney general to seek the appointment of successive prosecutors to get a desired result," Stromberg-Stein said.
The case against the two members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), was seen as the first major test of Canada's polygamy law, but Wednesday's ruling did not deal with the constitutionality of the law itself nor the merits of the allegations against the men.
Some civil rights lawyers have warned that the law might violate constitutional protections of religious freedom, and provincial prosecutors had for years declined to pursue charges out of concern the law would be struck down.
The U.S.-headquartered FLDS has maintained a community it calls Bountiful along the British Columbia-Idaho border since the 1940s, and some of its members have admitted to practicing plural marriages.
Blackmore, who was an FLDS bishop in Bountiful until the U.S. leaders of the church replaced him with Oler, has an Internet blog in which he defends polygamy as a religious right and offers moral advice.
Critics of the FLDS, including some former members, say polygamy abuses women, with underage girls forced to marry much older men -- a charge that Blackmore denies.
The mainstream Mormon Church, which once supported polygamy but now denounces it, has taken pains to distance itself from the FLDS, whose U.S. leader and self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs, in now in jail on sex charges.
A spokesman for British Columbia's provincial prosecutors said they were still reviewing the ruling and no decision had been made on whether it should be appealed.
An earlier prosecutor, who had declined to file charges, had recommended instead that British Columbia ask the Supreme Court of Canada to rule on the polygamy law's constitutionality before pursuing a criminal case.
Reporting by Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson