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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - The social harm of polygamy should outweigh any fear that enforcing the laws against it will violate protections of religious freedom, Canadian prosecutors said on Monday at the start of a judicial inquiry.
The inquiry will grapple with legal and moral questions raised by a breakaway Mormon church sect that has allowed men to have multiple wives at its rural British Columbia compound since the late 1940s.
The Canadian province had long refused to file charges against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), saying it feared the 19th century law ran afoul of more recent civil rights protections.
But provincial prosecutors told the hearing they have changed their minds, and now want the law declared constitutional so they can enforce it. Their past views had hampered their recent efforts to file criminal charges.
"Today we have a much fuller appreciation of the social harm of polygamy," Craig Jones, a lawyer for British Columbia's attorney general told the British Columbia Supreme Court in Vancouver.
The FLDS, 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.
The inquiry, expected to last more than two months, has drawn submissions from religious and free speech advocates and childrens' rights groups, in addition to the federal and provincial governments and FLDS.
It will also hear testimony by residents of FLDS compounds in Bountiful, British Columbia and the United States, which normally shun contact with outsiders. Some of those witnesses will testify anonymously.
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, including forcing young unmarried boys 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