CRANBROOK, British Columbia (AP) — The trial of two Canadian men from a fundamentalist sect that allows men to have multiple wives opened Tuesday with not guilty pleas being entered on charges of practicing polygamy.
Winston Blackmore and James Oler each face one count of polygamy. Both men have served as bishops for the religious settlement of Bountiful, British Columbia which follows the teachings of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, often referred to as the FLDS.
Oler is accused of having four wives. He pleaded not guilty. Blackmore remained mute and Justice Sheri Ann Donegan said a not guilty plea would be entered on his behalf. Blackmore is accused of marrying 24 women over 25 years.
Blackmore's lawyer, Blair Suffredine, said outside court his client chose to say nothing for religious reasons.
"He doesn't want to deny his faith. He doesn't feel guilty," Suffredine said. "The technical way around that is don't say anything and they'll enter the plea not guilty."
Special prosecutor Peter Wilson told the court his case includes marriage records seized from the church's Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas, which were used in 2010 to sentence leader Warren Jeffs to life in a U.S. prison for sexually assaulting two young girls.
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, long known as "the Bishop of Bountiful," runs an independent sect of about 400 members in the town of Bountiful. He 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, Jeffs.
Oler is the bishop of Bountiful's FLDS community loyal to Jeffs. Even though many of the town's residents are related or have same last name, followers of the two leaders are splintered and are not allowed to talk with each other.
At the start of the trial, the judge released her reasons for rejecting an application from Blackmore to be tried separately from Oler, saying a substantial overlap in evidence against the two men means it is in the public interest for them to be tried together.
Blackmore has long claimed religious persecution and denial of a constitutional right to religious freedom
The case has a long history dating back to the early 1990s when police first investigated allegations that residents of an isolated religious community were practicing multiple marriages.
A lack of clarity around Canada's polygamy laws led to failed attempts at prosecuting Blackmore, followed by several efforts to clarify the legislation. The court ruled in 2011 that laws banning polygamy were constitutional and did not violate religious freedoms guaranteed in Canada's version of the bill of rights.
The judge-alone trial is scheduled to last several weeks.