Alberta courts are wading into the controversial territory of jurisdiction over religious organizations after the Alberta Court of Appeal decided to allow the Court of Queen’s Bench to hear an application relating to the 2014 expulsion of a member of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The appellate court sided with Randy Wall, a local real estate agent and member of the Congregation who faced expulsion after admitting to being drunk on two occasions and verbally attacking his wife.
Two of the three appeal judges dismissed the application from the congregation with a dissenting opinion from Thomas W. Wakeling, who wrote that the congregation is a private organization that is “like a bridge club.”
“The decisions the bridge club makes – when and where to meet, the obligations of the host, the duration of a session, who may be invited as a guest when a regular is unavailable – are not enforceable promises and have limited, if any, impact outside its small circle.”
“I’m very impressed with the dissenting judge,” said David Gnam who represents the congregation.
That dissenting opinion gives the congregation an automatic right to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada but Gnam says the decision is still in the hands of his clients.
“I’m still in process of formulating my recommendations to my clients and will leave it to them to make that decision,” said Gnam.
It’s been nearly 25 years since the country’s top court visited the issue of judicial jurisdiction over religious organizations.
In 1992, the court ruled that religious groups had to give details relating to the reasons for expulsion to members in order to give them an opportunity to respond.
‘Alleged wrongdoing involves drunkenness’
In 2014, Wall was accused of “alleged wrongdoing involves drunkenness” and was directed to appear before the Judicial Committee of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. That committee was comprised of four elders.
Wall told the panel his behaviour stemmed from stress related to the expulsion of his 15-year-old daughter who he and his wife were required by the church to shun.
The congregation had already kicked the teen out of the community and as a result, even though she was a dependent child living with her parents, the family was pressured to evict the girl from the home, leading to “much distress.”
At the meeting, Wall admitted he’d been drunk twice that he’d verbally abused his wife once.
The judicial committee found Wall was “not sufficiently repentant” and he was disfellowshipped, a decision that then compelled his wife, children and other Jehovah’s Witnesses to shun him.
Wall appealed that decision and a panel of three elders was selected and asked to consider “the mental and emotional distress he and his family were under” following his daughter’s disfellowship but the committee sided with the original panel’s decision.
Church’s appeal avenues exhausted
Finally, Wall sent a letter of appeal to the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society of Canada but he was told the Canadian Branch would not overturn the decision.
After exhausting the church’s appeal avenues, Wall made an application with the Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary which ordered a hearing to first determine if there was jurisdiction for the court to hear the application.
A judge decided that the superior court did have jurisdiction to hear the application because “he was satisfied the disfellowship had an economic impact on
The congregation and its judicial committee then appealed Wall’s right to have a Court of Queen’s Bench judge hear his application.
One of the congregation’s arguments was that the Court of Queen’s Bench judge erred when he found the religious practice of shunning infringes civil and property rights.
1992 Supreme Court of Canada decision
That was one of the grounds for the judge finding the court did have jurisdiction to “review the merits of a membership decision of a voluntary religious association.”
Wall said his clients refused to do business with him following his expulsion because they were from the Jehovah’s Witness congregation. For that reason, he argued his property and civil rights were affected by the disfellowship so the court had jurisdiction to hear the application.
The 1992 Supreme Court decision regarding a Hutterite man who was expelled from his Manitoba colony noted that the courts “are slow to exercise jurisdiction over the question of membership in a voluntary association, especially a religious one.”
The exception was when property or civil right hinged on membership.
Since 1992, there have been other cases that set the precedent for courts to have jurisdiction when “there has been a breach of the rules of natural justice or the complainant has exhausted the organization’s internal processes.”
Wall argued the internal process was unfair — that the church’s framework for expulsion was unclear.
He submitted that he wasn’t told whether he could retain a lawyer, if there would be a record of the proceedings, the details of the allegations against him or whether there would be written reasons for the committee’s decision
On the basis of those allegations, and because Wall had exhausted all avenues of internal appeal, the panel found the Court of Queen’s Bench has jurisdiction to hear the application.
Wall, who represented himself could not be reached for comment.