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SEPTEMBER 28, 2009 2:14PM

No Prosecution for Bountiful Love

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Winston Blackmore celebrates a legal victory in Bountiful BC. Photo: CBC.ca

Bountiful, British Columbia is a small town in interior BC that's been in the Canadian news recently.  Populated by a group of FLDS fundamentalists, the Attorney General of BC has been contemplating charges of polygamy.  After two prosecutors declined to prosecute on Constitutional grounds, the BC Attorney General started looking around for a third prosecutor to take the case.

Last week, the BC Supreme Court ruled that was illegitimate, and threw out the charges against the community's leader, Winston Blackmore.  Ultimately, the case was decided on issues of prosecutorial misbehaviour, but the end result is that charges will not proceed against Blackmore, who broke away from the Warren Jeffs wing of FLDS several years ago over doctrinal issues.

That means that the issues relating to the constitutionality of outlawing polygamy were never really tested.  Initially, prosecutors balked at taking the case, because of what they saw as serious constitutional issues, and that decision will serve as a precedent of sorts in future cases, but it won't carry the same legal weight as a decision from a Judge on constitutional issues.  The issue of whether polygamy laws are legal in Canada is still largely open.

I do have a dog in this race, of sorts.  The case was specifically about the religiously-based polygamy of fundamentalist Mormons, and largely focussed on the coercive nature of the communal lifestyle in "forcing" children into this lifestyle.  But as someone who practices a more egalitarian version of polyamory, I certainly watched the case with interest.

One of the underlying issues in any case about polygamy is always the basic right of the state to enforce it's notion of a "proper family."  We all know what that looks like in our society ... a monogamous, heterosexual couple reproducing with children.  Any model that deviates from that is treated with suspicion at best, and criminalized at worst.  Family groups that include more than two sexually active adults have always been frowned upon in the modern era of our society, and laws against polygamy reflect that.  Any case that addresses those issues is a case of interest to people like me.

At the end of the day, I don't support the FLDS style of polygamy.  The fact that it is limited to men is the first major problem in my eyes, and the fact that the lifestyle of polygamy is presented as a religious necessity is another serious problem.  There is a level of coercion to the lifestyle that is very unseemly, and when coupled with the male-dominance, it adds an extra level of inequity.  Becuase of the omnipresent nature of the religious philosophy of the group, women and girls are often pushed into polygamous unions against their will, and before they'd be considered "of age" in other parts of Canada.  All of these serious issues give me a lot of pause when I look at the activities in places like Bountiful.

There are, however, other models of polyamory that don't fall into the same traps, and it can be discouraging to be lumped in with with groups like the people in Bountiful.  Where they limit multiple partners to the men only, other forms of polyamory extend the same rights to women as well.  Further, where groups like Boutiful portray polygamy as a religious imperitive, mainstream poly present it as a lifestyle choice that is only right if it works for you.  Where children in Bountiful are indocrinated with the idea that male-dominated polygamy is a required part of their community, children of mainstream poly relationships merely see their parents engaging in a different kind of dating and love than their friends' parents.  While a parents' lifestyle will always have some small coercive effect on children, mainstream poly groups don't tend to emphasize their choices as the only morally acceptable choice, and that makes a huge difference in the level of coercion.  Let's also not forget that monogamous parents have a coercive influence on their children's dating choices as well ... we just consider that coercion to be "socially acceptable."

All poly people in Canada should be happy with the ruling of the BC Supreme Court ... it means that the Canadian legal system isn't interested in prosecuting people for personal relationship choices.  It's worth noting that the ruling left open the possibility of further charges aimed at the coercive and underage issues of the community, and I think most mainstream poly folks would like to see prosecution of those issues specifically, without discussion of the poly aspects of the community.  Ultimately, poly CAN be practiced in a way that minimizes the coercive nature of the lifestyle, leaving it as simply a personal choice about how someone views love.  Thousands of Canadians do that every single day, though they tend to do it quietly.

You might even know some poly people without realising it ... you might work with them, or your kids might go to school with their kids.  They might even live next door to you.  You've almost certainly interacted with one in public at some point in time, without even knowing it.  Poly people are simply people who choose to view love in a more inclusive way than others, and that shouldn't be criminalized when it involves only consenting adults.  We support the ruling about Bountiful because we don't think anyone should face legal problems simply for the way they choose to express love with other consenting adults.

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Interesting article, Lyle. As someone who was raised with Mormon polygamy as part of their heritage, I watch these goings-on north and south of the border with the FLDS and other similar groups with particular care. Thanks for posting it.
I do know polygamists, and respect those who can manage that lifestyle without forcing minors into relationships. Having several adult wives, or being one of several, is your business.
The distincton between coercive Poly and non-coercive Poly is so very important. Good post.
Lyle, a minor quibble about your statement "All poly people in Canada should be happy with the ruling of the BC Supreme Court ... it means that the Canadian legal system isn't interested in prosecuting people for personal relationship choices".

I think you shouldn't limit that to poly people. Every one of us should be happy that our legal system stays the hell out of anybody's personal relationships.

Get ready for the one man one woman crowd and the slippery slope crowd to jump on your case, but to them I would just offer the reminder that there are appropriate laws to protect minors (and animals) from all forms of abuse.
Kathy: Thanks ... I appreciate your perspective for sure. There are elements in FLDS that go well beyond "poly" itself, and I think those issues need to be addressed.

High: It's a personal choice, and not for everyone. It DOES feel more "natural" to me, but thats not a decision I can make for anyone else.

Berry: Thanks :)

Mark: Agreed ... and it's worth noting that it has implications beyond poly IMO. The original prosecutorial reluctance was due to concerns about getting involved in people's personal or religious choices, and that principle applies to things like gay marriage IMO.
Great post, Lyle. I agree. Consenting adults can do what they want, as far as I can see.
agree here, too. The state should stay the hell out of consenting adults bedrooms. If people are of legal age, they and their partners alone should decide who and how many people they want to be married to.
Polyamorous is different than raping underage girls. Being married off to a stinky old man when you're 14 seems kinda rapey to me... This sect of the Mormon religion is pretty fucking evil.
Yes, the issue of underage girls is skirted here, as well as the driving off of young men so that old men can have as many 14-year-old (or younger) wives and babies as they want. I count this as a "victory" for those who still seek to enslave women, girls and warp the lives of young men. This venal exploitation has precious little to do with one man/one woman, or the kind of glorified polyamory being discussed here.
The case of Bountiful is NOT about consenting adults, and it surprises me that someone would present it that way.
The case of Bountiful is NOT about consenting adults, and it surprises me that someone would present it that way.
Darryl: Agreed ... thats why I made a distinction between people who coerce children into the lifestyle, and consenting adults who choose to do this amongst themselves.

Emma: Did you read my post? I specifically stated that the coercion, and the age issue in FLDS were problems for me, and my style of polyamory doesn't include those elements. Bountiful is NOT about consenting adults, but this decision, because it was on POLYGAMY and not on the issues of coercion or child abuse. IS a victory for people like me who practice polyamory in an egalitarian way. I hope you noticed where I specifically said I hope that Blackmore is prosecuted for the issues of child abuse and coercion.
That's awesome, Emma! At least a few of us have an idea of what is going on here... Just look at that fat bastard.
Polyamory (between consenting adults) is fine. What is going on within these freaky weird little villages is definately not O.K. These people don't know the difference and I'd wager that Lyle doesn't, either.
As long as the persons involved are adults and consenting, nobody should have a say how they chose to love and live.
Daryl: What makes you think I don't know the difference? I spelled it out in the post ... and you know nothing of how I live my life.
Lyle, I did read your post, but I'm not splitting hairs as finely as you are. You can be very sure that Blackmore and his ilk view this as a victory for their way of life, which most definitely involves the abuse and coercion of minors. BC's attorney general is an idiot, and this isn't the first time his interference and conflict of interest has derailed an important case.

I understand that you do not support this type of polygamy, but to say that the ruling is a good thing on general principle contradicts what you said earlier. QUOTE The case was specifically about the religiously-based polygamy of fundamentalist Mormons, and largely focussed on the coercive nature of the communal lifestyle in "forcing" children into this lifestyle. QUOTE

My take is that you are trying to have this both ways. The case was about something different than the polyamory you espouse. I'm not trying to be offensive here, but I know quite a bit about Bountiful. A good friend of mine wrote a book about it, so maybe I can't be as objective as usual.
Emma: It is different from the Bountiful variety. My point is simply that while this case did focus on the Blackmore case specifically, it still is a statement that the Canadian government is unwilling to prosecute ANYONE on the grounds of what they do with consenting adults. Thats what prosecuting Blackmore for POLYGAMY is about. The ruling left open the possibility of charging him with child abuse and coercion, and I agree with those charges. He shouldn't be charged because of anything he chooses to do with consenting adults, and a conviction for him on polygamy charges would speak to other poly relationships between consenting adults.

I fully support further charges against him for child abuse, and I expect them to come down sometime this year or next. I would support that trial, but not any trial where polygamy is the main criminal complaint.
Anybody follow the Big Love series? I really enjoy it. I didn't realize how much I had been influenced to oppose polyamorous relationships on principle without having had any exposure to them other than a six month debacle of my own in my college years. The family itself has some pretty standard drama and comedy, so I really got the sense that the family was fairly ordinary with the exception of their marriage relationships.

Big Love follows one Mormon family that seems to work pretty well, but it is contrasted with a compound where child brides are commonplace and control over everything--including all property, money, and who gets to marry whom--is kept by a powerful and fairly evil man, played by Harry Dean Stanton. There is very little to love about the compound; nearly every person is characterized in a negative light. There is scheming and manipulating, power grabbing, murder, and other fun stuff.

It might be worth your time to check it out. We rented the whole series on Netflix and look forward to the new season. It's a really good cast, too.

Bill Paxton ... Bill Henrickson / ... (35 episodes, 2006-2010)

Jeanne Tripplehorn ... Barb Henrickson / ... (35 episodes, 2006-2010)

Chloë Sevigny ... Nicolette Grant / ... (35 episodes, 2006-2010)

Ginnifer Goodwin ... Margene Heffman / ... (35 episodes, 2006-2010)

Amanda Seyfried ... Sarah Henrickson (35 episodes, 2006-2010)
(She was in Mamma Mia)

Douglas Smith ... Ben Henrickson / ... (34 episodes, 2006-2009)

Grace Zabriskie ... Lois Henrickson (34 episodes, 2006-2010)

Harry Dean Stanton ... Roman Grant (33 episodes, 2006-2009)

Melora Walters ... Wanda Henrickson (32 episodes, 2006-2010)

Joel McKinnon Miller ... Don Embry (32 episodes, 2006-2009)

Matt Ross ... Alby Grant (30 episodes, 2006-2010)

Keegan Holst ... Wayne Henrickson (30 episodes, 2006-2009)

Garrett Gray ... Raymond Henrickson (29 episodes, 2006-2009)

Jolean Wejbe ... Tancy Henrickson / ... (27 episodes, 2006-2009)

Daveigh Chase ... Rhonda Volmer (27 episodes, 2006-2009)

Mary Kay Place ... Adaleen Grant (27 episodes, 2006-2009)

Shawn Doyle ... Joey Henrickson (21 episodes, 2006-2010)

Bruce Dern ... Frank Harlow (19 episodes, 2006-2009)

Tina Majorino ... Heather Tuttle / ... (19 episodes, 2006-2009)

Mireille Enos ... Kathy Marquart / ... (16 episodes, 2007-2010)
I assumed the polygamy issue came from the claims of the "church" that a church "marriage" was binding. In a non-Mormon polyamorous relationship, I'm not aware that the partners consider themselves married. They may be committed, but they know they aren't married. They should know enough to take legal protection -- ie be a legal co-owner of a house they've helped to buy.

I don't believe that the state should prosecute personal choices of living arrangements, but they should take measures to prevent coercive living situations, protect those too young to legally consent to sex, and have every right to provide social advertising to groups at risk of entering/being in living situations which are likely to lead to social costs (ie women on welfare because their man is can't provide for all his wives and children.).
Leslie: I've seen some of that series ... my main issue with it is the same issue I have with much of Mormon polygamy ... it's restricted to the men. In Big Love, we see a man having multiple wives, but we don't see those wives being free to see other men, which is the only way poly is equitable. If the freedom to see other people isn't extended to all parties, then it's an abusive relationship.

Malusinka: You are correct, to a point. Certainly one of Blackmore's main arguments was that since he never sought government approval for any of his marriages, and since the government has no legal record of him being married more than once, they have no grounds to charge him with polygamy. Most poly groups I know might make the same legal argument if faced with prosecution, but they wouldn't necessarily argue that they weren't "married" in a non-legal sense. Most poly relationships involve the same level of commitment as monogamous marriages do, and most participants will feel "married" in much the same way a common-law couple might feel married, even without the paperwork. The key point here is that poly relationships are usually deep, commited relationships that have all the same dynamics as long term monogamous ones.
Yes, the characters are all fairly traditional, and the family is made up of one man with three wives (and many children), but it's pretty clear that they all chose it. I imagine we may see nontraditional family communities like this in the media in the future. Poly relationships and families may or may not be more common these days, but they certainly are more visible. This is a start.

All of the adult family members vote on whether another person (obviously female) should be added. Bill Paxton, the "man of the household," tries to lay down the law, but he rarely wins when he dictates.

They hinted at a lesbian relationship between women from another non-compound family, but it wasn't pursued beyond the one hint.
Those folks give me the creeps. I don't label myself polyamorous, although others do, because I don't have a philosophy of how my relationships with partners other than my husband fit into the larger society in terms of rights and responsibilities. I'm comfortable with the most casual of recognition, certainly, in my case, nothing approaching legal recognition. But I can see how others want to formalize the sort of thing I do casually, and perhaps declare a legally recognized, interdependent family relationship with more than one person. I agree with Lyle that it's a good idea to separate that desire from the egregious poaching of young teens as partners to degenerate old farts.
How ironic?

Polygamists have multiple marriages whereas Jim and I, after nearly 16 years, are fighting for recognition of our single union?
Sirenta: Glad to see your comment. I know from reading some of your articles that we share some common ideals I think. You may not think you are poly, but it sure looks like it from this angle :)

Christopher: As I mentioned in one of the other comments, I think the underlying ideal behind the ruling addresses "non-traditional" relationships of all kinds, as long as they involve consenting adults. I hope someday you and Jim WILL be recognized :) If I don't want the government in my bedroom, by extension, I don't want it in yours either my friend :)

I've read quite a bit about the Bountiful case and I fully agree that it represents the kind of situation that should not be allowed to continue.

I'm happy the case did not proceed because I think it was the wrong approach and tackled the wrong problem (polygamy vs. child abuse/endangerment and/or spousal abuse).

I believe that there are existing more appropriate laws that could have and should been applied in this case.

This issue obviously touched a nerve with you and I'm interested , since you have an insider's perspective through your author friend, if perhaps you may know some facts on this case that the rest of us weren't privy to through the media.
As someone who sometimes dreams of starting her own polyandrous sect I am glad the original prosecutors realized a case based on polygamy would fail. Thanks Lyle for pointing out that poly is a two-way street.
You people don't understand the difference between a chosen way of life and love and a SECT. If I were a 15 year old boy I would be driven from the community. If I were a 15 year old girl I would probably have at least one child by my Daddy/uncle/cousin rapist. Make more sense to you now or are ya gonna run some Libertarian Bullshit past me? Fuck, I'm not a femenist but right is right and wrong, well, it's Damn wrong...