Canada is Free and Freedom is Its Nationality

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Thursday, March 3, 2011

What Harm Does it Do?

My latest article on MercatorNet.

Oh, I would sing and dance with rejoicing if celestial [polygamous] marriage was no longer considered criminal. I believe in my religion and way of life. Our family could all take the same last name. We would be able to have the benefits of Canada as other Canadians have. We would use the money we spend on fighting for our religion to build nice housing for the families… We would be able to live in peace.
That was Witness Four, speaking in the British Columbia (Canada) Supreme Court about the alleged religious rights of a breakaway Mormon sect to practice polygamy. 

According to the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and others on the side of decriminalizing polygamy, Canada, the land of hope and freedom, is persecuting some of its most vulnerable citizens -- men and women who choose to peacefully express a minority religion, who ask nothing more than to be left alone and not live in the daily fear of being jailed and harassed for their faith. 

Is this possible? In a country that takes minority rights so seriously that entire institutions are dedicated to weeding out even the smallest hints of prejudice? What have we become? 

But wait a minute, this religious minority is also accused of involvement in the trafficking and abuse of young teenaged girls, subjecting children to dysfunctional and abusive families, exploiting young men, trapping women in a world of pain, the flagrant and public breech of laws that would protect the most vulnerable. Is it possible that Canada has turned a blind eye to all of this? 

And what will happen now that the judiciary has to decide which should prevail: freedom of religion, or some of the most basic values and norms of Canadian society? 

The question pits Canada’s anti-polygamy law, section 293 of the Criminal Code, against the Canadian Charter or Rights and Freedom guarantee to “freedom of conscience and religion” -- in this case the freedom of a FLDS/Mormon offshoot community in Bountiful B.C. This community believes that “plural marriages” are necessary in order to reach the Celestial Kingdom. Opposing that claim is a collection of organizations who contend that the abuses of polygamy are so grievous, and the harm to individuals and societies so great, that the law is a justifiable infringement on religious and individual rights. 

What kinds of harm? Allegations against FLDS members include the water torture of babies (holding children face up under a running tap if they cry when spanked), marriage of girls as young as 12 or 14 (statutory rape), sexual, mental, and physical abuse of children, immigration fraud, unfair treatment of young men (due to shortage of brides), forced/coerced marriage, and more. 

Perhaps some of the most affecting testimony came from Witness Four, quoted above. She learned the identity of her much older husband thirty minutes before she married him as a just turned 17 year old, crossed the Canadian boarder under false pretences, and came to live with him and her other three “sister-wives”. Six months later, with no prior notice or consultation with his other wives, her husband married a 15 year old girl, who enrolled in grade nine that year as a married woman. It never occurred to anyone involved that this might be in any way improper. No one called the authorities. The marriage must have been a revelation from God and, therefore, it was right. 

Another tragic story is told by a woman who refused, as a 13 year old, to marry the prophet Rulon Jeffs, then in his 80s. For this she was sent to work for a Bountiful lumber business. Laboring in sub zero conditions without proper protective clothing, she was reminded again and again by the “authorities” that if she would just submit to an arranged marriage it could all end. Trapped, terrified, and abandoned by her family she finally gave way and agreed to married, at the age of 17. 

But is this kind of harm, or any harm, inherent in polygamy? Surely monogamy has its own problems?

Dr. Margaret Somerville, Samuel Gale Professor of Law at McGill University, in an interview with MercatorNet suggests that while not all alleged harms are inherent in polygamy, some indeed are.
“My primary objection would be for the children... I believe that family units are primarily for the benefit of the children. Of course they are for the benefit of the adults involved as well, but if there is a clash between what adults want and what children need I give priority to the children.” 

“Children are best off with their mother and father, preferably their own biological parents unless an exception is justified as being in the best interests of a particular child... Polygamy is an alternative adult arrangement, which is also difficult for some of the children who become adults within that arrangement.” (Note the abuses chronicled above.) 

Others contend that the abuses chronicled in Bountiful, by both supporters and detractors are best fought by the legalization of polygamy. Some point to the idyllic picture of peace, love, and cooperation painted by many of the polygamous women, and suggest that the needs of the vulnerable would rather be served by bringing polygamy into the open, where abuse could be reported by women no longer afraid of prosecution for polygamy, and where justice and freedom of religion could coexist peacefully. 

But does society have a larger interest in banning polygamy? If some of these abuses are inherent to polygamy, can even legalizing it help? What could this do to the moral fabric of our society? 

Margaret Somerville again speaks of the danger of redefining marriage, particularly for children. She has contended for years that allowing same sex marriage (as has been done in Canada), would make it difficult to justify shutting the door on polygamy. 

“If you say that marriage is simply a social or cultural construct, which is what same-sex marriage says it is, and it has nothing to do with giving a child his own biological parents, then you could say that we could design marriage however we like. It could be four men and three women, or whatever you want to have. 

“What a monogamous relationship, one man and one woman, does is that it builds marriage around a biological reality. Actually, unlike same sex marriage, polygamy also builds marriage around a biological reality too but it doesn't do it equally between men and women. 

“I think it’s a matter of both biology and cultural values, and our western democratic societies’ cultural values are most definitely [in favour of] one man and one woman, and polygamy threatens that just as same sex marriage threatened that. Polygamy threatens it on the monogamous level, same sex marriage threatened it on the biological level.” 

“Once you move away from that fundamental monogamous procreational relationship... you start designing marriage however you like it, whether it is same sex marriage, whether it is polygamy either in the form of polygyny (one man with many wives) or polyandry (one woman with many husbands).” Or, indeed, what some of the sexual avant garde are calling polyamory”.
The children and women of Bountiful tell stories of wrenching abuse, and peaceful contentment. The Supreme Court is given a simple but difficult and critical choice. To choose to restrict the religious practice of some in the interests of preserving the traditional values of Canadian culture, or to accede to another redefinition of marriage and accept the collateral damage of broken lives in the name of freedom. 

Freedom, we may ask, for whom?

1 comment:

  1. Out of idle curiosity, how many of these 'wives' are on social assistance as single mothers? If a man wants more than one wife, he should be forced to support them without recourse to provincial funds.