Two top leaders of a polygamous community in western Canada have been arrested and charged with practicing polygamy, British Columbia’s attorney general said on Wednesday.
Attorney General Wally Oppal said Winston Blackmore has been charged with marrying 20 women, while James Oler has been 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 (FLDS), 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 the same last name, followers of the two leaders are splintered and are not allowed to talk to each other.
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 the 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.”
FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said Oler will face his 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.”
The US Embassy estimates there are about 300 Americans in Bountiful 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.