WSO Welcomes Supreme Court Decision on Religious Membership

Ottawa (June 1, 2018). The World Sikh Organization of Canada welcomes the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the landmark case of Highwood Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses v. Randy Wall (‘Wall’). This case deals with the right of a private religious organizations to decide their own membership. In a unanimous 9-0 decision released yesterday, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the appeal and affirmed that courts will not interfere in the decisions of private organizations. The WSO was an intervener in this case.

The facts of Wall case revolve around Mr. Wall who was “dis-fellowed” (expelled) from his Jehovah’s Witness congregation due to allegations of drunkenness and misbehavior with his family.  Mr. Wall brought an application for Judicial Review of the Congregation’s decision alleging that the expulsion affected his livelihood as a realtor since many of his clients were Jehovah’s Witnesses who no longer gave him business.  The Court of Queen’s Bench concluded that the Court had jurisdiction to hear the Judicial Review application based on Wall’s economic interest on whether he was afforded due process before this disfellowship. 

The Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the lower court decision.  The Congregation then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. 

The WSO was granted intervener status in the case by the Supreme Court of Canada on August 24, 2017 and the appeal was heard by the Court on November 2, 2017.   The WSO has appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada five times as an intervener-  four of those cases, such as this one, involved non-Sikh appellants.

The WSO argued that the Charter Value of state religious neutrality constrains the court from judicially reviewing the membership of private religious associations, as courts have no expertise or standing to consider matters of faith.  Allowing the court to intervene in such matters would be imposing the court’s (and the state’s) views on religious or doctrinal matters over the views of the actual faith community.

In his decision on behalf of the Court, Justice Malcolm Rowe noted that “the courts will not consider the merits of a religious tenet; such matters are not justiciable”. 

Just Rowe’s decision goes on to also recognize that “sometimes even the procedural rules of a particular religious group may involve the interpretation of religious doctrine…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.”

WSO legal counsel Balpreet Singh said, “we are very pleased by the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Wall case.  This was a case that had an impact on not just Jehovah’s Witnesses but potentially on all faith communities in Canada.  The Court has now clarified that private religious groups can set their own rules and choose whom to worship with, without state interference. Specific to the Sikh faith, decisions taken by the Punj Pyare will continue to not be subject to a judicial review.  We are pleased to have been able to provide the perspective of the Sikh community in this case and are delighted that the Court has accepted our submissions on this matter.”

The World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) is a non-profit organization with a mandate to promote and protect the interests of Canadian Sikhs, as well as to promote and advocate for the protection of human rights of all individuals, irrespective of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and social and economic status.

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