Supreme Court rules law courts have no jurisdiction on private religious matters

31 May 2018

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

The Supreme Court of Canada’s unanimous Wall decision May 31 is being hailed as a victory for religious freedom and associational rights in Canada.

The Catholic Civil Rights League applauded the unanimous ruling written by Justice Malcolm Rowe in the appeal of Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses v. Randy Wall, “as a strong statement in recognition of the independence of private religious institutions.”

“Mr. Justice Rowe’s reasons provide a strong statement on the limited role courts should have on reviewing internal decisions of private institutions, and in particular, ecclesiastical bodies,” said league president Phil Horgan.

Catholic Civil Rights League president Phil Horgan

“We are pleased with the court’s analysis of the limited role for judicial review of such institutional decisions, and the further recognition that secular courts are not qualified to rule on theological or ecclesiastical concerns. Every private institution serves to benefit from this analysis, especially those with underlying religious conceptions.”

The case involved Randy Wall, who sought a judicial review of an Alberta Jehovah’s Witness congregation’s decision to “disfellowship” or excommunicate him.

He argued the decision violated “procedural fairness” and negatively impacted his real estate business because once he was excommunicated, Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to patronize his business. Two lower courts agreed.

Canada’s highest court allowed the appeal by the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, thus overturning the Alberta Court of Appeal decision.

“In this case, the Congregation’s Judicial Committee was not exercising statutory authority,” the Court ruled.

“Second, there is no free-standing right to procedural fairness. Courts may only interfere to address the procedural fairness concerns related to the decisions of religious groups or other voluntary associations if legal rights are at stake. Third, even where review is available, the courts will consider only those issues that are justiciable. Issues of theology are not justiciable.”

“It means private religious communities are private religious communities; they are not subject to court oversight unless they violate the law or the legal rights of individuals,” said Albertos Polizogopoulos who represented both the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Catholic Civil Rights League before the court.

“It’s not necessarily a religious freedom case, but the effect of it is good for religious freedom.”

Polizogopoulos pointed out the decision rules “the courts are not qualified to deal with dogmatic, theological or ecclesiastical issues.”

“The courts do not get to determine who a religious community decides are eligible for membership,” said Polizogopoulos.

“It also says the courts do not get to determine whether an ecclesiastical process was followed or not, because they do not have the competence to make that decision.”

“In the end, religious groups are free to determine their own membership and rules; courts will not intervene in such matters save where it is necessary to resolve an underlying legal dispute,” the Supreme Court ruled.

It also said: “The courts have neither legitimacy nor institutional capacity to deal with contentious matters of religious doctrine.” The Canadian Council of Christian Charities (CCCC), another intervener, welcomed the decision.

“It supports the rights of religious communities to deal with their members, and not have their own disciplinary matters reviewed by the courts,” said Barry Bussey, the CCCC’s director of legal affairs .

Bussey had written previously on the CCCC’s website that the circumstances of Wall’s case made him a sympathetic figure, but argued “hard cases make bad law.”

“The Supreme Court decided to take out the emotion, and look at the law and rule this is not a case where the courts should be involved,” Bussey said.

But the decision impacts not only the rights of religious communities but also the associational rights of all Canadians, stressed the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, another intervener.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling provides clarity to Canadians that neither courts nor governments can legally compel citizens to associate together unwillingly,” said constitutional lawyer John Carpay, president of the centre.

“We are encouraged by the Supreme Court’s strong affirmation of the autonomy of religious communities,” said Derek Ross, executive director and legal counsel of the Christian Legal Fellowship, another intervener.

“As the European Court of Human Rights has stated, ‘the autonomous existence of religious communities is indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society.’

“In allowing this appeal, the Supreme Court has not only protected the rights of religious communities to determine their own rules and composition; it has affirmed that space must be preserved for all Canadians to pursue certain goals and relationships, free from state interference.

“This benefits people of all faiths, and all voluntary associations, religious or otherwise,” Ross said. “Today’s decision is not only a victory for church autonomy, but for a truly robust and multicultural civil society.”

The Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) Canada, another intervener, applauded the decision “for clearly articulating the proper scope and limits of judicial review and the jurisdictional limits of civil courts,” ARPA Canada said in a release.

“This case will stand as a clear precedent protecting the independence of religious bodies. It will also stand as a reminder to all judges of the virtue of judicial humility.”

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