A court’s competence to decide on a religious group deciding to ‘disfellowship’ a member
On 31 May 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada decided that ‘courts should not decide matters of religious dogma’.
Mr Randy Wall was a member of the Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Highwood (in Calgary, Alberta). In 2014, the Judicial Committee of the Highwood Congregation ‘disfellowshipped’ Mr Wall because he ‘had engaged in sinful behaviour’ and ‘was considered to be insufficiently repentant’. An Appeal Committee of the Highwood Congregation affirmed this decision. Mr Wall then brought an application for judicial review of the decision to disfellowship him. The application was based on reasons of (lack of) procedural fairness on the part of the Highwood Congregation. Both the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta and the Court of Appeal of Alberta concluded that the courts did have jurisdiction to decide on the merits of the case. The Highwood Congregation then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court allowed the appeal and quashed Mr Wall’s application for judicial review. The Supreme Court came to its conclusion on the basis of three arguments. These arguments involved the limitation of judicial review to public decision makers, the limitation of judicial review in matters of procedural fairness, and the non-justiciability of ecclesiastical issues.
First, on the issue of limitations to judicial review, the Supreme Court underlined that ‘The purpose of judicial review is to ensure the legality of state decision making’, which implies that ‘Judicial review is only available where there is an exercise of state authority and where that exercise is of a sufficiently public character’. From this, the Supreme Court concluded: ‘Thus it does not follow that “public” decisions of a private body – in the sense that they have some broad import – will be reviewable’.
Second, as concerns a person’s right to procedural fairness, the Supreme Court considered: ‘Indeed, there is no free standing right to procedural fairness with respect to decisions taken by voluntary associations. Jurisdiction cannot be established on the sole basis that there is an alleged breach of natural justice or that the complainant has exhausted the organization’s internal processes’. This would only be different under specific circumstances: ‘What is required is that a legal right of sufficient importance – such as a property or contractual right – be at stake’.
Third, in the matter of non-justiciability of ecclesiastical issues, the Supreme Court started its reasoning as follows: ‘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’. In this respect, the Court concluded: ‘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 judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada can be found at: www.canlii.org (English); Canada (Federal); Supreme Court of Canada; 2018; May; 2018-05-31 Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Judicial Committee) v. Wall, 2018 SCC 26 (CanLII).