Saturday, June 23, 2018

Canadian Supreme Court: a rare pro-religious liberty decision

(National Post) - A new Supreme Court ruling that Jehovah’s Witnesses are free to banish and shun any member they wish, regardless of how they decide to do it, offers a powerful precedent for religious independence in Canada.

It follows years of uncertainty of just how deeply into the waters of faith and doctrine Canada’s judges are willing or able to wade.

Now the limits are clear, thanks to the case of Randy Wall, a Calgary real estate agent and longtime Jehovah’s Witness whose “disfellowship” destroyed his client base and led him to seek redress in the courts. He did not dispute the right of the Highwood Congregation to banish him, but claimed they did so unfairly, without telling him detailed allegations, or whether he could have counsel or a record of proceedings.

The top court’s decision rejects that view, bluntly refers to his “sinful” behaviour, and says it has no business making legal decisions about it.

At issue were two episodes of drunkenness, one in which Wall “verbally abused” his wife, for which he was not “sufficiently repentant,” according to court records. The family was under great stress, stemming from the emotional troubles of their teenage daughter, who had similarly been disfellowshipped, leaving the parents in the strange position of being required by their religion to shun their own daughter. Wall said he was even pressured to evict her from their home.

He convinced a lower court it had the jurisdiction to hear his complaint, because it engaged his civil and property rights.
The Alberta Court of Appeal agreed. But the Supreme Court has now said once and for all that the courts ought not to interfere in religious discipline.

To borrow an analogy used by a lower court judge in his case, a church is less like a public company that has to act fairly and more like a “bridge club” that can pick and choose its members — or boot them out — at its own discretion.

Supreme Court Justice Malcolm Rowe borrowed this analogy in his reasons on behalf of the unanimous nine-judge court, one of the last cases under former Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin: “By way of example, the courts may not have the legitimacy to assist in resolving a dispute about the greatest hockey player of all time, about a bridge player who is left out of his regular weekly game night, or about a cousin who thinks she should have been invited to a wedding.”

The discipline panels of voluntary religious groups do not exercise state authority like, for example, a professional regulatory tribunal for doctors or dentists. They are not “public decision makers” whose actions must be subject to judicial review, the court decided.


  1. As opposed to this recent Canadian Supreme Court decision that went the other way, saying it is "proportionate and reasonable" to limit religious rights in order to ensure open access for LGBT students:
    Remember this is a university that already requires its students to sign a 'covenant' that limits certain behaviour as a condition of entry into the university, and which has existed since 1962.
    Religious rights in Canada will not stand up to challenges based on LGBTQ or new gender 'norms.'

  2. They will not in the US either eventually despite our 1st Amendment.