VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A Canadian court opened hearings on Monday into whether anti-polygamy laws violate constitutional protections of religious freedom.
The court is wrestling with civil liberties and moral questions surrounding a breakaway sect of the Mormon church that has practiced plural marriages at its compound in rural British Columbia since the late 1940s.
“We are beginning on an historic reference,” Robert Bauman, chief justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court told a packed courtroom in Vancouver.
The provincial government asked the court to probe the law’s constitutionality ahead of a criminal case against leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that is expected to test the issue.
Canadian prosecutors had declined to pursue charges against the church, fearing the untested 19th-Century law was unconstitutional. Critics of the sect said the government was condoning abuse of women and children.
The church, which split from the mainstream Mormon church over the issue of polygamy, has an estimated 10,000 followers in Utah, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, South Dakota and British Columbia.
The group’s leader, Warren Jeffs, is awaiting a retrial in Utah on his conviction of forcing an underage girl to marry her cousin. Polygamy is also illegal in the United States.
In a nod to public interest, Chief Justice Bauman was considering a request by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp to broadcast the hearing over the Internet -- something never before permitted from a Canadian court.
The provincial government wants the court to rule if the law is constitutional and if the polygamous relationship must also involve abuse or a minor to warrant criminal charges.
The case has drawn submissions from religious and free speech advocates and children’s rights groups, in addition to both the federal and provincial governments.
The case will also include testimony by current and former residents of the church’s compound in Bountiful, British Columbia, which has traditionally shunned publicity.
The church says it is exercising religious freedom. The group’s critics say it subjugates women, requires underage girls to marry older men and creates other social ills by forcing boys who are unable to marry onto the streets.
(The case is “In the Matter Concerning Constitutionality of S.293 of the Criminal Code” VA SO97767)
Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson