Apr 21, 2017

B.C. polygamy trial does not include a challenge to the law's validity

James Oler, who is accused of practising polygamy in a fundamentalist religious community, arrives for the start of his trial in Cranbrook, B.C., Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

Vancouver Sun
April 20, 2017

CRANBROOK, B.C. – The polygamy trial of two Mormon fundamentalist leaders is unusual. But the issues and evidence raised have nothing to do with whether the centuries’ old law is valid.

The trial could have been that had either Winston Blackmore or James Oler given notice, that they would be asserting their right to freely practice their religion. In Canada, that’s what’s required. It’s not something that a defence lawyer can just casually drop in after the prosecution’s case has been concluded.

But neither of the accused did, even though Blackmore registered his disdain for the proceeding with his refusal to enter a plea at the start of the trial, forcing Justice Sheri Donegan to enter a not-guilty plea on his behalf.

Blackmore’s lawyer says that his client doesn’t believe he is doing anything wrong by following one of his religion’s fundamental teachings that to reach the highest degree of salvation a man must have multiple wives.

But what he believes doesn’t matter if there’s no challenge to the law. It also doesn’t matter that Mormon fundamentalists also conform to church founder Joseph Smith’s teaching that the only temporal laws that must be followed are those that have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That rather surprising belief is also held and maintained by the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as historian Richard Bennett testified Thursday.

It’s laid out in the Doctrine and Covenants, which is one of LDS’s four religious texts. The section was read out in court by the Canadian professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

Testifying Thursday, Bennett said it was only after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1904 upheld two federal laws banning plural marriage that God revealed to the church’s prophet Wilford Woodruff that it was time to end the practise of polygamy.

After that revelation, LDS members were told there would be no more plural marriages and that men with multiple wives would have to choose one wife to live with, while continuing to support their other wives. And it was because of this revelation that Mormon fundamentalist split off from the mainstream church.

The court-appointed amicus, Joe Doyle, jumped on this teaching during Bennett’s cross-examination. Left unspoken was the fact that Canada’s polygamy law has never been tested by its highest court.

But as prosecutor Peter Wilson noted in his opening statement earlier this week, the validity was determined in a 2011 decision following the lengthy constitutional reference case in B.C. Supreme Court. It’s that decision that is the genesis for this trial.

Of course, it is possible that Justice Donegan could re-open the question. But it seems unlikely.

Mormons’ doctrine that “the law of the land that is constitutional” is the only kind of law that must be followed is only one of many things that sets the LDS apart from other Christian religions.

It is a revelatory religion, which means that what they believe changes over time based on revelations that their prophet and president receives from God or his messengers.

It’s meticulous record keeping that allows its members to keep the rules straight and it’s something that Bennett says is repeated frequently throughout the religion’s holy books – The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Wisdom

Asked about the importance of record keeping, Bennett smiled and paused before answering, “Well, there would not be an LDS church without records.”

The church historian was testifying a day after Texas Ranger Nick Hanna had identified dozens of FLDS marriage and personal records seized in 2008 during a raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch.

There were marriage records for 20 of the 24 women listed on Blackmore’s indictment and five marriage records for Oler, whose indictment lists only four women.

The Oler marriage record matched the information found on the personal records of Oler and those five women.

Those records are key to the prosecution’s case because the law applies to sanctioned, conjugal relationships that are celebrated or marked by ceremonies or rites.

The trial is expected to last at least another week.


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