Religious groups can decide own membership, rules, Supreme Court says
The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, Ont.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, May 31, 2018 10:01AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, May 31, 2018 5:54PM EDT
OTTAWA -- A Jehovah's Witness who was expelled from a Calgary congregation cannot take his case to a judge, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in a decision that affirms the general right of religious organizations to govern their own affairs.
In a 9-0 decision Thursday, the high court said the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench has no jurisdiction to review the congregation's decision to shun Randy Wall over alleged drunkenness and verbal abuse.
"In the end, religious groups are free to determine their own membership and rules," Justice Malcolm Rowe wrote in the decision, adding that courts will not intervene in such matters unless it is necessary to resolve an underlying legal dispute.
Religious and civil liberties organizations took an active interest in the case, given questions about the degree to which the courts can scrutinize decisions by faith-based bodies.
Wall, an independent real estate agent, was summoned in 2014 to appear before the judicial committee of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, a four-person panel of elders.
He admitted to two episodes of drunkenness and, on one of those occasions, verbally abusing his wife -- wrongdoing he attributed to family stress over the earlier expulsion of his 15-year old daughter from the congregation.
The judicial committee told Wall, a congregation member since 1980, that he, too, would be expelled because he was not sufficiently repentant.
Members who are "disfellowshipped" may still attend congregational meetings, but they are permitted to speak only to immediate family members about non-spiritual matters.
An appeal committee upheld the decision, prompting Wall to pursue the matter in provincial court. He alleged the congregational judicial committee did not give him proper notice, an adequate opportunity to be heard or reasons for its decision.
The congregation argued that Wall's application for review should be tossed out because a secular court had no jurisdiction to review a religious tribunal's decision.
In a submission to the Court of Queen's Bench, Wall said that his real estate clients -- about half of whom belonged to Jehovah's Witness congregations -- refused to conduct business with him any longer.
A judge concluded the court had jurisdiction to hear the case on the grounds that being shunned had an economic impact on Wall.
The provincial Court of Appeal upheld the decision, and the congregation then took its arguments to the Supreme Court.
In its decision, the high court said the purpose of judicial review is to ensure the legality of state decision-making. However, in this case, the congregational committee was not exercising statutory authority.
"Private parties cannot seek judicial review to solve disputes that may arise between them."
Courts may only interfere to address procedural fairness concerns about the decisions of religious groups or other voluntary associations if legal rights are at stake, Rowe wrote. Yet there was no evidence that Wall and the congregation had a contractual relationship.
Finally, the decision said, it is not appropriate for the courts to make decisions about religious tenets.
Wall's lawyer, Michael Feder, called the ruling disappointing because it gives religious groups and other voluntary associations "a very wide berth even though their decisions can and often do profoundly affect their members' lives."
"No matter how grave the effect of the group's decision, and no matter how unfair the procedure followed, the courts cannot ordinarily interfere."
David Gnam, a lawyer for the congregation, welcomed the decision, saying the Supreme Court "swept aside years of uncertainty and conflicting court decisions" on a fundamental matter.