Fundamentalist Mormons say they are free to choose, but critics claim children are being exploited.
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Bountiful, British Columbia » Cousins Kerri Oler and Cheryl Palmer, both 17, are eager to put down a few myths.
"Are you married?"
"No!" answer Palmer and Oler together, their loose braids bouncing as they toss their bare heads, their hands jammed in their zippered sweatshirts against the January breeze.
"Have you ever been pressured to marry?"
"Nope!" answers Oler, a tinge of defiance in her laughter.
"Has anyone ever suggested you marry an older man?"
Oler is the bolder one and wants it known that critics of fundamentalist Mormons have got it wrong.
"No one can run around saying we're all forced to marry at 14," she says. "Here I am 17. I don't have to get married if I don't want to."
Yet critics of polygamy, who say they rely on the accounts of women who have left polygamous marriages but choose not to speak publicly, see it differently.
The youth of the unincorporated Canadian community of Bountiful, settled six decades ago by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, simply are not given the education and opportunities children should have, say Audrey Vance and Linda Price.
Boys often leave school to work in church- or church leader-controlled enterprises and girls are expected to marry, sometimes under the age of consent, and have children, they say.
"They are exploiting children," says Price. "Just because you're a nice person and a hard worker, does that give you permission to abuse your children?"
The two women, working with former polygamous wives, formed the group Altering Destinies Through Education five years ago and have been pressuring education and law enforcement leaders to stop what they consider abuse -- whether short-circuited education or underage marriage -- in Bountiful.
The two women live in Creston, 8 miles northwest of Bountiful and about 30 miles north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
They say the criminal charges of polygamy brought last week against two rival fundamentalist Mormon men are a good first step.
"Now it will finally come to a head," says Vance, a former member of the Creston school board.
Jim Oler, 44, and Winston Blackmore, 52, were arrested on a single charge of polygamy each. They were released after surrendering their passports and are to appear Jan. 21 in Creston Provincial Court.
The case could ultimately provide an answer to a question long pondered: whether Canada's Charter of Rights' guarantee of religious freedom protects the right of individuals to practice polygamy.
Law enforcers, who have investigated the fundamentalist Mormons for several years and even reportedly collected DNA samples, have said they're not finished bringing charges, said Price and Vance.
"That's good," says Vance. "We hope this is giving a message to the men: This is not OK."
The two 17-year-olds walking about Bountiful on Saturday, however, say the charges against their uncle, Jim Oler, are not fair.
"He's a really great guy and he shouldn't be going through all this trouble," says Kerri Oler, his niece. "He doesn't deserve it."
Jim Oler is the local leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Blackmore, the former FLDS bishop, was exiled from the church when he refused to recognize FLDS President Warren Jeffs as prophet. About half the approximately 1,000 fundamentalist Mormons in the area aligned with Blackmore.
Since the split, members of the two groups, their families interwoven, continue to live alongside each other but essentially shun each other. They worship and work separately, and each group has its own school.
Merrill Palmer, the principal of Bountiful Hills Elementary/Secondary School, the FLDS school, disputes claims of polygamy critics that the children are not given educational opportunities.
Since the school resumed teaching eleventh- and twelfth-graders in 2002, 41 students have graduated and 26 of them are girls, Palmer says.
Of the 41 graduates, half went on to post-secondary or vocational education, he says. Five graduates, including two of his own daughters, Palmer says, now attend Southern Utah University.
Bountiful Hills gets half its funding from the province for kindergarten through tenth grade, but the 11th and 12th grades are entirely privately funded, he says.
Provincial education inspectors often show up unannounced, he says, but the children educated at Bountiful Hills -- enrollment is now 230 -- "consistently exceed provincial averages" on tests, Palmer says.
Kerri Oler and Cheryl Palmer, both graduates, say they have not yet decided what to do next.
"I want a job," says Oler.
"Get rich!" Palmer says.