VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- A Canadian judge ruled Wednesday that the country's anti-polygamy law is valid and that the harms polygamy inflicts on women and children outweigh any claims to religious freedom.
The chief justice of British Columbia's highest court, Robert Bauman, said in an individual ruling that banning it only minimally impairs the religious rights of fundamentalist polygamous Mormons.
Bauman accepted evidence that polygamy inherently leads to harms including physical and sexual abuse, child brides, the subjugation of women, and the expulsion of young men who have no women left to marry.
"This case is essentially about harm ... to women, to children, to society and to the institution of monogamous marriage," wrote Bauman.
"There can be no alternative to the outright prohibition," he added. "There is no such thing as so-called 'good polygamy."'
Upholding the law could lead to prosecutions in a small, polygamous community in British Columbia. The case is expected to be appealed to Canada's Supreme Court.
The case seeking clarity on the law was brought by prosecutors after another judge threw out polygamy charges against Winston Blackmore and James Oler in September 2009. Blackmore and Oler are rival bishops of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Bountiful, a polygamous community of about 1,000 residents.
Blackmore has been accused of having at least 19 wives, and Oler at least 3.
FLDS members practice polygamy in arranged marriages, a tradition tied to the early theology of the Mormon church. The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints renounced polygamy in 1890, but several fundamentalist groups seceded in order to continue the practice.
Blackmore has long claimed religious persecution and denial of a constitutional right to religious freedom.
When the case against Blackmore and Oler fell apart in 2009, the province's new attorney general asked the court to examine the law so that the justice system could have clarity about whether Canada's law barring multiple marriages is constitutional. In dismissing the original case against Blackmore and Oler, Justice Sunni Stromberg-Stein said the province's attorney general had gone "prosecutor-shopping" in order to charge the two men after previous prosecutors recommended not charging them.
Provincial and federal government lawyers argued before Bauman that polygamy is inherently harmful, leading to physical and sexual abuse, teenage brides, human trafficking and other crimes. These outweigh any claim to religious freedom, the governments say.
Bauman said women in polygamous relationships are at an elevated risk of physical and psychological harm and face higher rates of domestic abuse and violence.
"Competition for material and emotional access to a shared husband can lead to fractious co-wife relationships," Bauman said. "These factors lead to higher rates of depressive disorders and other mental health issues. They have more children, are more likely to die in childbirth and live shorter lives than their monogamous counterparts."
Lawyer Kieran Bridge of Stop Polygamy in Canada said he was pleased with the decision.
"There is strong evidence of the harms caused by polygamy," he said.
Anne Wilde, a Mormon fundamentalist from Utah who testified at the hearings, said Utah's plural community will be generally disappointed by the decision, but expects it will be appealed. Wilde, co-founder of a plural culture advocacy group, is a widow who was one of three wives when her husband was alive.
"It's too bad that they have trouble separating the crime from the culture," said Wilde, who disagrees that there are harms inherent to polygamy. "They are already laws in place to address any criminal activity in any marriage lifestyle. Why don't they go ahead and enforce those laws rather than single out our culture."
AP writer Jennifer Dobner contributed to this report from Salt Lake City.