I first reported here in late November on the court case regarding Bountiful, British Columbia. This case continues to provide daily drama in a Vancouver courtroom, with women in long calico skirts and boots, children in denim overalls, thirty black-robed lawyers and numerous visiting experts in smart business suits, all passing each other on the courthouse steps.
But underlying the colorful, riveting fascination of tearful women claiming abuse, bearded elders reciting scripture and small children speaking to the courtroom via closed-circuit television, is the very real possibility that when it all ends Canada could become the first developed nation to legalize plural marriage, based on Canadian freedom of religion and freedom of association laws.
Some Mormon women giving testimony have requested that media be denied access to the courtroom, complaining taped portions of testimony have appeared in local and national news coverage. Judge Bauman denied the request, noting the televised portion in question had been given voluntarily to the media by one of the former wives of Winston Blackmore, an elder in the Bountiful cult.
Lawyers for the polygamist community have argued strongly that perceptions of a religion different from their own should not sway the public or the court in their judgments about certain practices. (Fundamentalist Mormons believe an involvement in polygamist marriage will enhance their position in the afterlife.) They have also produced an array of women and children who testify that their living conditions in polygamous homes are happy, secure and mutually supportive, and there is absolutely no abuse or exploitation of children.
The Crown has contradicted this with testimony both from former members of polygamous communities and from experts in the field. Shoshana Grossbard from San Diego State University, who researches the economics of marriage, testified early in December that allowing men to have multiple wives necessarily decreases the supply of women to most men in the community, but this paradoxically does not increase the individual value of women to the men who “own” them. Instead, Grossbard testified, it makes men more aggressive and controlling, because they are required to struggle to hang onto their wives. As a result, women are often threatened and physically intimidated to prevent them from straying. Also, teenage boys and young men who would otherwise compete for wives are banished from the community and denied contact with their families, providing a destabilizing social force.
The crown has also presented a series of women from plural marriages who testify to domestic abuse. This testimony is dismissed by the polygamists’ lawyers as anecdotal and misleading. “If you went to a women’s shelter and interviewed the women living there,” said one lawyer, “you would hear horrifying, heartbreaking stories of abuse and violence. But this would not mean monogamy is harmful and should be made illegal.”
The court is expected to issue its ruling on the legality of plural marriage sometime in late January.