Canada, which legally protects the rights of same sex partners to engage in state sanctioned genderless marraiges is now criminally prosecuting others who seek to practice polygamy based on their religious beliefs.  The AP is reporting (and is being picked up all over the world) that two polygamous leaders have been arrested and criminally charged in Canada, for practicing polygamy:

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Two top leaders of a polygamous community in western Canada have been arrested and charged with practicing polygamy, British Columbia’s attorney general said Wednesday.

Attorney General Wally Oppal said Winston Blackmore is charged with marrying 20 women, while James Oler is accused of marrying two women.

“This has been a very complex issue,” Oppal said. “It’s been with us for well over 20 years.”

Blackmore, long known as “the Bishop of Bountiful,” runs an independent sect of about 400 members in the town of Bountiful. He once ran the Canadian arm of the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but was ejected in 2003 by that group’s leader, Warren Jeffs.

I’m certainly not an expert on Canadian constitutional law, but I’m probably not the only one who sees some incongruity here:

Oppal said some legal experts believe polygamy charges won’t withstand a constitutional challenge in Canada over the issue of freedom of religion.

“I’ve always taken the position that’s a valid offense in law,” Oppal said. “And if someone says that it’s contrary to their religion, let a judge make that decision.”

FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said Oler and any other FLDS member who might be charged would face their accusers.

“No one is running,” Jessop said. “We believe that our religion is being discriminated against and that there are many government officials working with each other to carry out a vendetta of hatred and are determined to end our way of life.”

Should be interesting to see what the Canadian judicial system does with this.

Update The Salt Lake Tribune is also now reporting the story:

After investigating a small polygamous community in British Columbia for more than three years, Canadian authorities have charged two of its leaders with practicing polygamy.

Jim Oler, 44, and Winston Blackmore, 52, were arrested this morning and each face one count. They are expected to be released later today, with the conditions that they limit their travel and do not perform any spiritual marriages, said Sgt. Tim Shields, a media relations officer for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Blackmore and Older are scheduled for an appearance in Creston Provincial Court on Jan. 21.

Oler, accused of having two wives, is charged with “practicing polygamy” between Nov. 1, 2004, and Oct. 8, 2008.

Blackmore, alleged to have 20 wives, is charged with “practicing polygamy” between May 1, 2005, and Dec. 8, 2006.

The ages of the wives are not an issue in the charges, though Shields said some of the women may have been under 18 at the time of the marriages. Shields said investigators have not found any wives currently under 18.

British Columbia Attorney General Wally Oppal said in a press conference that the charges stemmed from an investigation into Bountiful that began in 2005. In 2006, the mounted police recommended charges of polygamy and sexual exploitation be filed.

Again, religious freedom will be at the forefront:

But a legal debate emerged over whether Canada’s protections for religious freedom would bar criminal charges against residents  who practice polygamy as a religious tenet. Some recommended an appellate court decide that issue before any criminal case proceeded.

Oppal on Wednesday said he does not believe religious freedom protects Blackmore and Oler or that an appellate court should first hear a hypothetical case.

“The fact is, the law is quite clear,” Oppal said. “It prevents polygamist practices from taking place.”

Oppal said there was not enough evidence for sexual exploitation charges, but added the investigation is ongoing.

The Vancover Sun has now published a time line of the Bountiful history, worth a look:

1843 — Officially recorded date of Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith having a revelation about celestial or polygamous marriages.

1862 — U.S. Congress passes a bill prohibiting polygamy, which the Mormons said was unconstitutional because it interfered with their right to practise their religion (From The Polygamists)

Sept. 1887 — Card and two others go to Canada looking for a site to establish a community in exile. They find Lee’s Creek, later to be called Cardston.

1887 — Edmunds-Tucker bill is introduced and debated. It would authorize the government to confiscate all the LDS property (except chapels) worth in excess of $50,000 and dissolve the church as a corporate entity. It was approved in 1890 and found to be constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, forcing Wilford Woodruff’s hand.

1888 — Charles O. Card, who is wanted for polygamy in the United States, goes with two others to Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald asking for special dispensation to bring their plural wives and other families to Canada. Macdonald says no and the next year brings in legislation outlawing polygamy.

1890 — Wilford Woodruff, the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, renounces the practise of polygamy.

1946 — Winston Blackmore’s uncle, Harold Blackmore, buys property outside Creston, B.C. and establishes the community that will come to be called Bountiful. Blackmore is affiliated with the fundamentalist Mormons living along the Utah-Arizona border in a community called Short Creek.

Spring 1961 — Winston Blackmore’s father, Ray, takes control of Bountiful away from Harold.

October 1991 — RCMP conclude a 13-month investigation and recommend charges be laid against Winston Blackmore and Dalmon Oler for practicing polygamy.

June 1992— Attorney General Colin Gabelman decides not to lay charges after getting legal opinions that the polygamy section of the Criminal Code would not withstand a Charter challenge.

2002 — Winston Blackmore is excommunicated by Warren Jeffs, who succeeded his father, Rulon, as the prophet of the FLDS. Jim Oler is appointed bishop.

Spring 2004 — Debbie Palmer, who was the complainant in the late 1990s, along with several others files a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

June 14, 2004 — After receiving a letter from someone in Bountiful alleging abuse, B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant asks RCMP to investigate,

April 2005 — Winston Blackmore holds a polygamy summit in Creston. At the polygamy summit in April, WB says that his son married a 14-year-old. He also admits that he has married “several under-aged girls”.

Summer 2005 — Wally Oppal is appointed attorney general of British Columbia and describes the situation in Bountiful as “intolerable.”

FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs is indicted by an Arizona grand jury along with seven others on various charges of sexual conduct with minors.

Aug. 16, 2005 — Justice Minister Irwin Cotler re-affirms his opinion that the polygamy law is constitutional, but asks justice officials to see if there are any amendments that might be made to strengthen it.

May 5, 2006 — FBI puts Warren Jeffs on its 10 Most Wanted list.

Aug. 25, 2006 — Warren Jeffs is arrested outside Las Vegas on a routine traffic stop.

Dec. 8, 2006 — Winston Blackmore goes on CNN with Larry King and admits to being a polygamist and having ‘married’ several girls who were 16 and one who was 15.

Aug. 1, 2007 — Special Prosecutor Richard Peck recommends to Attorney General Wally Oppal that rather than laying charges the province should refer the polygamy law to the B.C. Court of Appeal to determine whether it is constitutionally sound. Oppal disagrees.

Sept. 7, 2007 — Oppal appoints another special prosecutor, Leonard Doust to review the evidence RCMP collected and review Peck’s decision.

Sept. 25, 2007 — FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs is convicted on two counts as an accomplice to rape of a 14-year-old girl, who he had forced to marry her 19-year-old, first cousin.

April 7, 2008 — Doust reports to Oppal that he agrees with Peck and recommends a court reference. Oppal is still not convinced.

June 2, 2008 — Oppal appointed Terry Robertson as special prosecutor, who subsequently asks RCMP to do more investigating.

Jan. 6, 2008 — RCMP Sgt. Terry Jacklin swears information about Oler and Blackmore, charging each with one count of practicing polygamy.

Jan. 7, 2008 — Blackmore and Oler are arrested, taken to Cranbrook where they are charged and released with conditions. Their first court appearance is set for Jan. 21 in Creston provincial court.

This news can’t hurt the return of BIG Love to the HBO screens this Sunday.