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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A Canadian court will be asked if the country's laws against polygamy violate constitutional protections of religious freedom, British Columbia's attorney general said on Thursday.
The law's constitutionality was left in limbo last month after a judge tossed out a criminal case against two members of a breakaway Mormon sect that practices polygamy in the Western Canadian province, Michael de Jong said.
"There is a question that needs to be answered, and it's a very basic one: Is polygamy a crime in Canada?" de Jong told reporters in announcing the special case to be filed in British Columbia Supreme Court -- a trial level court.
Some civil rights lawyers have warned that the 19th Century law, which has never been tested, was likely unconstitutional, and officials had for years declined to pursue charges against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).
The U.S.-based sect has maintained a community it calls Bountiful along the British Columbia-Idaho border since the 1940s. It also has communities in Utah, Colorado, Texas and Arizona.
De Jong believes the polygamy law is constitutional, but said that because last month's ruling dismissed the case on an unrelated technical issue the province had to find a different way to resolve the question and pursue charges.
Canadian Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the federal government supports the province's action and will help. "The practice of polygamy has no place in modern Canadian society," Nicholson said in a statement.
One of the men charged in the case, Winston Blackmore, has argued maintaining a so-called plural marriage was his religious right. Police allege Blackmore has 20 wives.
The mainstream Mormon Church, which once supported polygamy but now denounces it, has taken pains to distance itself from the FLDS, whose former U.S. leader and self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs, in now in jail on sex charges.
Critics of the FLDS say it forces underage women to marry much older men, and De Jong said the court will also be asked if that concern has any bearing on the law's constitutionality.
U.S. and Canadian authorities have co-operated in investigating the group on sex-related allegations, but complain they have been stymied by its secretive nature and a refusal by victims to speak up.
De Jong said he hopes the case will move quickly, but acknowledged that, with appeals, it is likely to end up in the Supreme Court of Canada.
Reporting by Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson