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Courts have neither the mandate nor the expertise to resolve religious doctrinal disputes

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The Alberta Court of Appeal is located inside the TransCanada building in downtown Calgary.

The Alberta Court of Appeal is located inside the TransCanada building in downtown Calgary.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Canadian Appeals Court Allows Review of Church's Expulsion of a Member

In Wall v Judicial Committee of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, (Alberta Ct. App., Sept. 8, 2016), the Court of Appeals of the Canadian province of Alberta held, in a 2-1 decision, that Canadian civil courts have jurisdiction to review a formal decision by a Jehovah's Witness congregation to disfellowship one of its members. The congregation's Judicial Committee took the action against the member, Randy Wall, on the basis of charges of drunkeness.  A church Appeal Committee upheld the decision over Wall's defense that his action resulted from stress over the church's previous disfellowshipping of his 15 year old daughter and the requirement that he shun aspects of his relationship with her.

The majority held that civil courts have jurisdiction to review the decision of a religious organization where the decision impacts property or civil rights, or if a breach of the rules of natural justice is alleged.  Here Wall alleged sufficient procedural irregularities to give jurisdiction to determine if rules of natural justice were breached.  The appeals court majority also held that Wall can submit new evidence to the trial court on whether the impact of shunning by fellow congregants will result in an economic impact on his real estate business.

Judge Wakeling dissenting said in part:


Relying on basic constitutional principles, I have concluded that, presumptively, religious associations – and more importantly, the constituent members – have the constitutional right to select their own members – those with whom they will worship. This decision to exclude a person from the group may be attributable to irreconcilable religious differences or perceived unacceptable forms of behaviour. One should not have to undertake such an intensely personal pursuit with those with whom they do not wish to associate. A religious association must be solely responsible for this class of decisions.

A civil court must decline to review membership decisions of a religious association....

tate intervention in the affairs of religious organizations is not only contrary to the interests of a democratic community, it is also inimical to the welfare of both religious organizations and their congregants.  Whether a religion prospers and attracts new members and has influence in the greater community should be the product of the efforts of adherents of a religion and the values of the religion, not the level of support provided by state apparatus, including the judicial branch of government.

... Courts have neither the mandate nor the expertise to resolve religious doctrinal disputes.

Where one appellate judge dissents on an issue of law, an appeal as of right to Canada's Supreme Court is available. (Background.)  National Post reports on the decision.


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