The CCRL Applauds Supreme Court Decision in Highwood Congregation v. Wall

Toronto, ON May 31, 2018 – The Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) applauds today’s unanimous ruling 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.

The CCRL intervened jointly with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), asserting that ecclesiastical decisions, including decisions over qualifications or determination of membership, or decisions on internal discipline, should not be subject to judicial oversight absent some other legal basis. Our brief submitted that secular courts are not qualified to make rulings on theological or ecclesiastical concerns. Moreover, it was submitted that the Charter was not applicable to private entities, or if the court found the Charter to apply, that the broad protection of freedom of religion in section 2(a) of the Charter should be found in favour of the congregation in this case.

Today, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous 9-0 ruling, overturned the lower court’s allowance of a judicial review claim of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation’s decision to “disfellow” Mr. Hughes over its assessment of his “sinful” behaviour.

Writing the judgment of the Court, Mr. Justice Malcolm Rowe stated at Para 12:

“First, judicial review is reserved for state action. In this case, the Congregation’s Judicial Committee was not exercising statutory authority. 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.”

The decision clarified that private institutions are shielded from review of its internal decisions, in the absence of some underlying legal claim such as a property or contractual claim, even where there may be some “public” import. From Para 21:

“The proposition that private decisions of a public body will not be subject to judicial review does not make the inverse true. Thus it does not follow that “public” decisions of a private body — in the sense that they have some broad import — will be reviewable. The relevant inquiry is whether the legality of state decision making is at issue.”

Mr. Justice Rowe, with reference to the underlying Alberta Court of Appeal decision, reiterated some specific examples of what matters which were not appropriate for judicial intervention, at Para 35:

“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.”

CCRL President and constitutional lawyer Philip Horgan commented:

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. 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.

Mr. Justice Rowe’s reiteration of previous case law, to the effect that “courts have neither legitimacy nor institutional capacity to deal with” religious dogma (Para 36), is a helpful synopsis of the limits of courts in adjudicating ecclesiastical decisions.

Mr. Justice Rowe summarized his ruling, on behalf of the entire court, at Para 39:

“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.”

Philip Horgan commented:

The League expresses its pleasure that the Supreme Court has made strong statements that should apply in equal measure to other matters to be decided by this court, including the court’s determination in the Trinity Western appeals, for which the CCRL also intervened. We hope that similar deference to private institutional decision-making on internal codes of conduct will be respected.

Media inquiries available.


About the CCRL

Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) (www.ccrl.ca) assists in creating conditions within which Catholic teachings can be better understood, cooperates with other organizations in defending civil rights in Canada, and opposes defamation and discrimination against Catholics on the basis of their beliefs. The CCRL was founded in 1985 as an independent lay organization with a large nationwide membership base. The CCRL is a Canadian non-profit organization entirely supported by the generosity of its members.

To donate to the CCRL, please click here.

For further information:

Christian Domenic Elia, PhD
CCRL Executive Director
416-466-8244
@CCRLtweets