Image: Winston Blackmore
Jonathan Hayward  /  AP file
Winston Blackmore, the religious leader of the polygamous community of Bountiful, shares a laugh with six of his daughters and some of his grandchildren, near Creston, on April 21.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/7/2009 7:29:44 PM ET 2009-01-08T00:29:44

Two 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. Oppal said it is the first test of Canada's polygamy laws.

"This has been a very complex issue," said Oppal, who has been weighing a case since he became attorney general in 2005. "It's been with us for well over 20 years. The problem has always been the defense of religion has always been raised."

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.

Oler is the bishop of Bountiful's FLDS community loyal to Jeffs. Even though many of the town's residents are related or have same last name, followers of the two leaders are splintered and are not allowed to talk with each other.

The men could get five years in prison if convicted, Oppal said.

FLDS members practice polygamy in arranged marriages, a tradition tied to the early theology of the Mormon church. Mormons renounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah's statehood.

Last June, Oppal appointed a special prosecutor to look into allegations of criminal abuse at Bountiful despite two earlier legal opinions that said it would be difficult to proceed with criminal charges for polygamy itself.

Blackmore openly acknowledges having numerous wives and dozens of children but has said his community abhors sexual abuse of children.

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."

'Beginning of a long journey'
Leah Barlow, one of Blackmore's wives, said the community has known for a long time that the investigation was under way, but members were never sure what would come of it, so the arrest took them by surprise.

"As the day goes on, you realize it's just the beginning of a long journey," Barlow said. "Maybe, in reality, it's what needed to happen to settle the issue. We've had a black cloud hanging over us for a long time."

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Tim Shields said officers spoke to 90 people in British Columbia, Nevada, Utah and Idaho in the investigation. Shields said investigations showed some of the men's wives were married "well before the age of 18."

The men were arrested Wednesday morning by eight police officers arriving in unmarked cars. Both were ordered to surrender their passports. Shields said commune members frequently cross the U.S.-Canadian border less than a mile from the commune.

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."

Jessop said the FLDS church does not condone or practice underage marriage.

Micheal Vonn of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association the case is ripe for an appeal as far as the Supreme Court of Canada.

"I can't imagine how it wouldn't be a case that wouldn't be challenged vigorously on both sides," she said.

FLDS ranch raid
Last April, Texas authorities raided an FLDS ranch and put more than 400 children into foster care. Almost all of the children were returned to their parents in June after the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state overstepped in removing all the children when it only had evidence of abuse or neglect involving about a half-dozen teenage girls.

The FLDS, with an estimated 10,000 members, is headquartered in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. In 1947, a small group moved just across the border into Lister, British Columbia. The newcomers dubbed the pristine spot at the base of a snowy mountain range Bountiful.

Besides an estimated 1,000 Canadians living in Bountiful, the U.S. Embassy estimates there are about 300 Americans there who are loyal to Blackmore and 200 others who follow Jeffs, who is in jail awaiting trial in Arizona on four counts of being an accomplice to sexual conduct with a minor.

Daphne Bramham, author of "The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada's Polygamous Mormon Sect," said while Oler could receive financial help in his legal battles from Jeff's followers, Blackmore is in difficulties.

"He was once a millionaire but he's in financial straits right now," Bramham said.

More on: FLDS | polygamy

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