Toronto, ON August 8, 2017 – On Friday, August 4, the Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) applied for leave to intervene at the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) in Judicial Committee of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses v. Wall.
On this file, the CCRL has applied jointly with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC).
The case addresses whether a secular court can redecide and overturn a religious group’s internal means of administering its own decisions regarding discipline following non-adherence to internal rules.
Mr. Wall was a member of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Alberta, who was ultimately displaced from the congregation, within the rules of that faith community, after failing to repent sufficiently after two episodes of being drunk and unruly.
Mr. Wall, a real estate agent, suffered financially from being shunned from his congregation and other Jehovah’s Witnesses.
To Catholics, the nature of Mr. Wall’s predicament is foreign, however, the question is whether the courts should stay out of intra-ecclesiastical decision making.
In the past, the courts have been deferential to internal decisions of churches. In Alberta, the majority of the judicial panel cited the leading appellate case from Ontario (Hart), but allowed the judicial review here in a 2-1 decision, on the basis of alleged breach of natural law arguments on access to justice.
The dissenting justice (Wakeling) wrote a vigorous dissent, not that far distant from the arguments in Trinity Western University (TWU), that the courts should steer clear of judicial review of non-state actors.
The SCC will hear the appeal on November 2, long before the appeals in TWU on November 30.
Civil courts are typically deferential to the precepts of canon law, as applied by the Catholic Church, which have ample provisions for notice, for hearings, and multiple levels of appeals. But using a breach of natural law to allow civil courts to review ecclesiastical decisions may be a problem for other religious groups, or even for the Catholic Church, if it is expanded upon to be allowed to challenge core teachings.
The CCRL, with the EFC in a joint intervention, propose to make the following submissions:
a. Freedom of religion includes the right to associate with co-religionists and to preserve and maintain a community’s religious character, identity and integrity.
b. The ability for a religious community to self-define and preserve its religious identity and integrity is integral to the positive manifestation of freedom of religion and freedom of association.
c. Decisions on membership and discipline, within a religious community, are private decisions based on theological and/or doctrinal interpretations and are not within the jurisdiction or purview of the state. To obligate the Highwood Congregation to re-admit the Respondent, and to obligate other members of the Highwood Congregation to associate with him is to encroach on the 2(a) and 2(d) rights of the congregation and each of its members.
d. The State ought not to interfere with the private religious decisions of religious communities. To do so would require Courts to become the arbiter of religious dogma.
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.
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