Canada's landmark polygamy case goes to court Tuesday

(Reuters) - A decades-long fight to charge members of a fringe religious sect with polygamy is going to court in British Columbia, Canada on Tuesday.

Among the two men charged is Winston Blackmore, leader of the breakaway Mormon community of Bountiful in southeastern B.C.

The British Columbia government has been weighing prosecution since the early 1990s. At issue is Canada's century-old polygamy law. Blackmore's defense counsel argues that the law violates the community members' constitutional right to religious freedom.

For almost two decades and in the wake of multiple Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigations, the B.C. government declined to pursue polygamy charges, citing concerns that doing so would violate the constitution.

In 2009, however, the government charged Blackmore and Bountiful-area resident James Oler with polygamy. Two years later, the Supreme Court affirmed that these charges were constitutional.

Blackmore is accused of practicing "a form of polygamy" or "a kind of conjugal union" with 24 women between, Oct. 12, 1990 and Feb. 28, 2014, according to court documents; Oler faces the same charge involving four women between May 20, 1993 and Jan. 7, 2009, the documents show.

The two face one count each of polygamy. None of the charges have been proven in court. The case is being heard in Cranbrook, B.C. and is expected to take several weeks.

(Reporting by Anna Paperny; Editing by Denny Thomas and David Gregorio)