Supreme Court Grants Leave to Appeal in Religious Dispute

The Supreme Court has decided to hear the appeal of  Wall v Judicial Committee of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 2016 ABCA 255. Mr. Wall was a Jehovah’s Witness from 1980-2014, when he was “disfellowshipped”. He was disfellowshiped as result of his alleged drunkenness, verbal abuse toward his wife, and s refusal to shun his previously expelled 15-year old daughter, all actions for which he was deemed not sufficiently repentant. He appealed the decision through all available internal mechanisms, finally turning to the courts.

The majority of the Alberta Court of Appeal held that a court has jurisdiction to review the decision of a religious organization where there is an alleged breach of the rules of natural justice, or where all internal avenues of appeal have been exhausted; in such cases, the court can determine whether the internal decision was carried out in accordance with the organization’s rules and natural justice. More controversial was the majority’s opinion that Mr. Wall’s economic losses as a result of disfellowship were also reasonable grounds for court intervention because it interfered with his civil rights.

In a meticulously footnoted dissent, Justice Wakeling vehemently disagreed with the majority, finding that private actors are not subject to judicial review, and being a registered charity does not attract a significant enough public dimension to change the Congregation’s character from non-public to public. Even if it was subject to judicial review, the decision to expel Mr. Wall did not raise a justiciable issue, and constitutional principles give Congregation members the right to determine their membership. Finally, even if a large proportion of his real estate client base no longer does business with him, Mr. Wall’s property and civil rights are not affected by his expulsion.

This appeal raises several important issues - the ability of a religious community to define its own membership requirements, the immunity that protects religious communities when it acts to discipline or expel members, and the freedom religious communities have to create internal mechanisms and responses to address concerns of a spiritual nature. This will be an important case to follow as the outcome will significantly impact the autonomy and freedom of religious communities.