VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Religious rights are being weighed against those of women and children in a landmark Canadian court case deciding if the country’s long-standing law against polygamy should be struck down.
Prosecutors warned in closing arguments in British Columbia Supreme Court on Monday that women and children will be the losers if Canada allows a fundamentalist Mormon religious sect to continue practicing polygamy.
The province of British Columbia has asked the court to decide if the law is constitutional before it pursues criminal charges against members of the U.S.-headquartered Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).
The group has practiced polygamy since the 1940s at its community called Bountiful, near the British Columbia-Idaho border, but authorities have been wary of prosecuting members out of fear the law would not hold up in court.
Opponents of the law say it should be struck down on the grounds of religious freedom. Critics of polygamy say the social harms outweigh any infringement on religious beliefs.
The case has spurred a separate investigation into whether minor girls have been smuggled from Canada into the United States and forced to marry older men of the fundamentalist Mormon sect headed by Warren Jeffs.
Subjugation of young women is just one of the social harms that will develop if Canada legalizes polygamy, and that potential harm outweighs any infringement of religious rights, prosecutors told the court.
“It is anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, anti-liberal and antithetical to the proper functioning of any modern rights-based society,” Craig Jones of the British Columbia attorney general’s office told the court in Vancouver.
The constitutional case has been unusual because it has included testimony from social and legal experts as well has current and former members of the sect, which has communities in Canada and the United States.
FLDS leaders deny the abuse allegations and a legal brief filed for the closing arguments accuses critics of using stereotypes to defend a law that attacks one of their religious tenets.
“While the freedom of religion is not absolute, it is the submission of the FLDS that polygamy in and of itself does not cause harm to, or interfere with, the rights of others,” the group’s attorneys wrote.
The FLDS, with an estimated 10,000 members, broke away from the main Mormon Church, which has abandoned polygamy.
Evidence submitted to the trial by Texas officials has prompted Canadian police to investigate if more than two dozen underage girls were trafficked over the border from British Columbia as part of forced marriages.
Texas officials say documents seized in a raid on an FLDS community in 2008 indicated two 12-year-old Canadian girls were driven to Utah by their fathers and placed in marriage with Jeffs, the group’s spiritual leader.
Jeffs, 55, is awaiting trial in Texas on charges including sexual assault of a child and bigamy. He has pleaded not guilty.
(The case is “In the Matter Concerning Constitutionality of S.293 of the Criminal Code” VA SO97767)
Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson