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Will Polygamy Be Legalized in Canada?

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Peter Dazeley /getty

Canada is home to publicly funded universal health insurance, legal gay marriage, a justice system with no death penalty and several relatives of Michael Moore. So it’s safe to say the nation has some significant ideological differences with its neighbor to the South. But even Canadians are apprehensive about a court case in Vancouver, British Columbia, that could lead to the legalization of polygamy.

The case centers on a breakaway Mormon sect in Bountiful, B.C., that practices plural marriage. Attempts to prosecute members of the sect have been less than successful. Meanwhile, some of the polygamists have become quite open about their marital habits. The large family of Winston Blackmore, who allegedly has 19 wives and more than 100 children living together in a community in Bountiful, recently participated in a National Geographic TV special. (More on Time.com: Who Needs Marriage? Men Apparently)

So, state and Canadian attorneys-general have asked the court to affirm the law against polygamy that is already in place. Some Mormon groups and civil libertarians claim that the law is unconstitutional because it violates rights to freedom of religion. The hearing, which has been underway for a week, is being heard in front of B.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Bauman, and is expected to last until January. Craig Jones, a lawyer for the province, noted that if the law were overturned, Canada would be come the only western country to sanction polygamy.

Witnesses from plural marriages across the Americas have been called to testify. Some have said they find the arrangement very satisfying, but others have detailed the abuse they suffered under its strictures, particularly those who belong to the Fundamentalist Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), to which some of the Bountiful community are connected. Many of the witnesses are testifying anonymously, to protect them from subsequent prosecution. (More on Time.com: How Prince William is the Model Modern Groom)

“The criminal prohibition of polygamy baffles me,” wrote an Arizonan woman, known as witness no. 8, in her affidavit. She’s college educated and shares her husband with one other woman, known as as a “sister wife” (as watchers of reality TV or HBO know). “How do you truly force human minds to believe that which they don’t?” she asks. Montreal-based law professor Angela Campbell, who’s not a member of the sect, maintains the chief problem women face is that their dodgy legal status keeps them impoverished.

But still other witnesses, including the brother of James Oler, the leader of the Bountiful sect, have condemned the practice. They maintain it deprives women of choice in whom to marry, can lead to abuse of minors and is damaging to young men, who, unless they toe the line, are not given wives and are thrown out of the community into a world they have been brought up to despise. “It is damaging for children to grow up in that environment,” says Truman Oler in his affidavit. “The FLDS does not permit anyone free choice. You are told what to do. If you don’t follow the path, you will lose everything.” (More on Time.com: Can an iPhone App Save Your Marriage?)

The FLDS members counter that their form of marriage is the most holy type and leads to celestial blessings. The Mormons generally value sublimation of self and, as one witness put it, maintaining “a kind and peaceful nature at all times, no matter what others do around me.” The FLDS also shun contact with the outside world.

That’s part of the problem, says Brent Jeffs, nephew of the imprisoned U.S. leader of the FLDS, Warren Jeffs, and co-author (with Healthland contributor Maia Szalavitz) of the memoir  Lost Boy, about his childhood in the sect. “The way of life that constitutes this religion is that of secrets and lies,” he tells TIME. “These families should be exposed to the world around them to show that there are choices for each and every one of them and whatever way they want to live.” (More on Time.com: Real-Life Romeos Don’t Compare to Dream Lovers)

Lawyers for the community say that if polygamy were legalized, the members of the sect would not have to be so cut off from the rest of society. “The criminalization of polygamy drives its participants to separate themselves from mainstream society,” says Robert Wickett, who represents the FLDS. “Members will testify that they do not want to live as pariahs, separate and apart from society.”

This, however does not ring true with many ex-sect members, who say that they are prohibited from seeing family who are still members of the FLDS or other polygamous factions after they leave or are expelled. (More on Time.com: Legal Sex Work in Canada Just Became Easier, But Will It Be Safer?)

As far as Jeffs is concerned, polygamy should “absolutely not” be legalized. “It’s abusive for everyone involved.”

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