VANCOUVER, B.C. — The leader of a polygamous community in western Canada said Thursday that authorities are engaging in religious persecution by charging him with practicing polygamy.
Winston Blackmore, who was arrested Wednesday, claimed there are tens of thousands of polygamists across Canada but said his religious sect is being singled out, disregarding his right to religious freedom.
“This is not about polygamy,” Blackmore told reporters in the community of Bountiful. “To us this is about religious persecution.”
Authorities arrested both Blackmore, 52, and James Oler, 44, who lead rival polygamous factions in Bountiful, a town in southeastern British Columbia. Blackmore is charged with marrying 20 women. Oler is accused of marrying two women.
B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal said the charges carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison. He said the case will be the first test of Canada’s polygamy laws.
Blackmore, who has about 400 followers in Bountiful, once ran the Canadian arm of the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but was ejected in 2003 by that group’s leader, Warren Jeffs. Oler is the bishop of Bountiful’s FLDS community loyal to Jeffs.
FLDS members practice polygamy in arranged marriages, a tradition tied to the early theology of the Mormon church. Mormons renounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah’s statehood.