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Constitutional arguments begin in Canadian polygamy case

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CRANBROOK, British Columbia (AP) — A Canadian man found guilty of marrying two dozen women says he believed he was entitled to practice polygamy because he wasn't charged when police investigated him in the 1990s.

Winston Blackmore appeared in British Columbia Supreme Court in Cranbrook this week where a judge is hearing arguments on whether Canada's polygamy laws infringe on his rights to freedom of religion and expression.

Blackmore is a leader of the community of Bountiful, British Columbia, where residents follow the teachings of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

He was found guilty earlier this year of polygamy after the court heard he had married 24 women, including three who were 15 years old at the time. A co-defendant, James Oler, was found guilty of having five wives.

Blackmore is asking for a stay of the proceedings and an exemption from prosecution based on his religious beliefs. If he is convicted, Blackmore is asking for an absolute discharge. The convictions have not been entered pending the outcome of the constitutional arguments.

Blackmore says in an affidavit for the current court proceedings that he was detained by Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigating polygamy allegations in 1990 and later released without charges being laid. He says he believed the release without charges meant he could practice polygamy and he relied on that when he proceeded with future marriages.

In 2011, a decision from the British Columbia Supreme Court said Canada's polygamy law was constitutional and the ruling eventually led to charges being approved against Blackmore and Oler.

That ruling said polygamy is a crime and the harms of plural marriage outweigh any claims to freedom of religion. The court found the harms arising out of the practice of polygamy include physical and sexual abuse, child brides, the subjugation of women and the expulsion of young men who have no women left to marry.

Blackmore is arguing that polygamous marriages occurring before the 2011 decision should not be prosecuted because before that it was not legally and constitutionally clear whether polygamy was a crime.

He testified in court Tuesday, saying that as far as he knew is legal and lawful in the sight of God.

Special prosecutor Peter Wilson suggested that Blackmore did know that plural marriages weren't legal, lawful and proper in the eyes of the Government of Canada.

"Fair statement?" Wilson asked Blackmore in court.

"Fair statement," Blackmore answered.

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