POLITICS

B.C. polygamous leader wants congregation assessment to save on his taxes

01/23/2012 02:51 EST | Updated 03/24/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - The leader of a polygamous commune in southeastern British Columbia took the stand Monday at a trial that's attempting to define his obscure community.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars depend on whether Winston Blackmore can convince a tax court judge that Bountiful, B.C., is a religious congregation deserving of special status.

The trial is expected to place the community under an unprecedented spotlight, with Blackmore and other residents called to testify about life in Bountiful, from how its businesses and land are structured to the organization and beliefs of its religion.

Blackmore spoke quietly as he described his own financial situation and recalled the history of the community. Bountiful was founded just south of Creston, B.C., near the U.S. border in the 1950s, just a few years before Blackmore was born.

While the mainstream Mormon church renounced polygamy more than a century ago, Blackmore insisted he follows the church's teachings.

"My religion has always been the religion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," said Blackmore, wearing a dark suit in the witness box.

"I believe in the Bible. I believe in the Book of Mormon."

Bountiful residents follow the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, a U.S.-based offshoot of the Mormon church that still holds polygamy as a tenant of the faith.

The community split in 2002, with half of the community continuing to follow the FLDS and the other half following Blackmore.

In court documents, Blackmore has insisted his followers make up a bona fide religious congregation in which resources are shared and everyone works to benefit the entire community. He argued that means any income generated by Bountiful's businesses should be spread over the community's residents rather than considered his personal income.

Ottawa says tax laws governing religious congregations were designed for truly closed communes such as Hutterite colonies, where residents have no property or possessions of their own and work exclusively for the betterment of their community.

Federal government lawyers insist Bountiful does not fit that definition, and have re-assessed Blackmore's tax filings to add $1.5 million in additional income from 2000 to 2004 and in 2006.

The income is connected to J.R. Blackmore and Sons Ltd., the community's business arm that is involved in logging, fence-post manufacturing and farming in B.C., Alberta and Idaho. Blackmore holds a 40-per-cent stake in the company.

Federal government lawyer Lynn Burch told court that Bountiful isn't a congregation as defined by the tax law.

Burch said the law requires members of such congregations to belong to a formal religious organization and to live and work together in a community that does not permit residents to own property or land. Members must devote their working lives to the activities of the congregation, she said.

Burch said Bountiful does not satisfy any of those criteria.

Residents of Bountiful are able to own property such as houses, cars and bank accounts, and they earn their own income, she said. Some even work outside the community.

And Bountiful isn't part of an organized religion, she argued.

The FLDS is not associated with the organized Mormon church, and Blackmore's half of the community isn't even connected to the FLDS.

Instead, Blackmore is merely the patriarch of a community that consists largely of his own family, said Burch. Blackmore doesn't answer to any higher church authority, allowing him to essentially run the community as he sees fit, she said.

"You will hear evidence that the appellant, at best, is a representative of a splinter group of a splinter group," Burch told the judge.

"Despite the appellant's attempt to prove to the contrary, there is no such thing as a generic religion of Mormonism to which the appellant and his community can claim membership. (Expert witnesses) will testify that Mr. Blackmore is twice removed from episcopal legitimacy in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the consequence that his community is not a constituent part of a religious organization."

Earlier court cases have heard that Blackmore has more than 20 wives and well over 100 children.

Bountiful's religious beliefs were also put under a microscope last year in an unrelated case into the constitutionality of Canada's anti-polygamy law.

Blackmore and another community leader, James Oler, were each charged with practising polygamy in 2009, but a judge later threw out the charges.

That prompted the B.C. government to refer the case to the B.C. Supreme Court to decide whether the Criminal Code ban on polygamy is constitutional.

The trial heard from dozens of witnesses, including women currently living in Bountiful. Those witnesses were all from Oler's side of the community, as Blackmore boycotted the hearings.

Last November, a judge concluded the law was constitutional because any claims to religious freedom were outweighed by the harms that polygamy inflicts on women and children.

The B.C. government hasn't said whether it will launch a fresh polygamy prosecution against Blackmore, Oler or anyone else from Bountiful.