The Supreme Court of Canada released their decision today in the case of Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Judicial Committee) v Wall. The decision is important because it clarifies if and when the court is able to review internal decisions made by religious institutions. The unanimous decision of the Court limits the scope of judicial review (a review of the court as to whether a decision by a tribunal has been properly made) allowing religious organizations to make and apply their own rules.
This case originated in Alberta in 2014. Mr. Wall, the initial plaintiff, is a realtor and was a member of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses from 1980 until 2014. Mr. Wall was initially called before the Judicial Committee elders to address “alleged wrongdoings involving drunkenness.” As a result of the hearing he was disfellowshipped. Many of Wall’s clients were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he lost business due to his disfellowship. Mr. Wall appealed to the Congregation’s Appeal Committee, who agreed with the initial finding, and finally to the National Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society of Canada, who also agreed with the initial decision to disfellowship Mr. Wall.
Mr. Wall appealed to the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench to judicially review the committee’s decision. The first question the courts needed to address was whether they had the jurisdiction (legal authority) to review this type of decision. Both the initial court and the Court of Appeal found that there was jurisdiction to review. The Congregation finally appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
In a unanimous decision of the Court written by Justice Rowe, the Supreme Court of Canada has overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision and ruled that the court does not have the jurisdiction to review the decision of the Judicial Committee of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Court made several important comments about how the courts are to treat decisions from religious organizations. The decision outlines three reasons that judicial review is limited for private religious organizations.
- The Court highlights the uses of judicial review, and the limited circumstance in which it can be applied to decisions of religious organizations. Judicial review is a legal concept that lets the court “engage in surveillance of lower tribunals.” The Court specifies in the decision that to judicially review a decision there needs to be an “exercise of state authority” and that exercise needs to be of a public character. For religious organizations, judicial review will only be applicable where their decisions have public effect beyond the organization.
- Secondly, the Court found that there is no free-standing right to procedural fairness. This means that to bring a claim forward for a religious organization there needs to be a legal right underlying the claim. This could take the form of a contract or property benefit received by members. There also needs to be intention to create a legal right. Further, the Court specifies that mere membership in a religious organization, where no civil or property right is granted through membership, will not be enough on its own.
- Finally, the Court found that even where review is available, the courts will consider only the issues that are justiciable (capable of being determined before the courts). This clarifies some previous decisions of the court by finding that theological issues are not within the justiciable scope of the Court.
The Court’s decision in Wall highlights the autonomy of religious organizations in their decision-making processes. It limits the ability of members to seek the review of a court regarding the results of a proceeding. Further, it limits the scope of any potential court intervention to legal issues, leaving questions of theology and religious tenets to the organizations themselves.
Overall, we see this as a positive affirmation of organizations’ rights to make internal and theological decisions in accordance with their own convictions.