Canadian Supreme Court Restricts Secular Court Oversight of Church Discipline

Decision: “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.”

When it comes to churches and religious organizations, however, Justice Rowe made a further, significant conclusion. He acknowledged that, in religious contexts, procedural rules may actually involve the interpretation of religious doctrinewhich is something that Canadian courts have never wanted to touch.

 

Today [May 31, 2018], the Supreme Court of Canada released a very significant decision regarding religious freedom in Canada.

Back in September, I wrote an article about a case out of Alberta called Wall v. Judicial Committee of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. At stake in that case was whether Canadian courts have the authority to review church discipline decisions. The courts in Alberta all agreed that they did, as long as the fairness of the disciplinary decision was in question, or the decision had an impact on the economic interests of the disciplined member. Needless to say, the case had the potential to open up the floodgates to state intrusion into church affairs.

In its decision, the Supreme Court of Canada not only closed those floodgates, but bolted them shut with clear and comprehensive reasoning that essentially ends the possibility of state oversight of church membership. Justice Malcolm Rowe, on behalf of a unanimous court, summarized the Supreme Court’s conclusion as follows:

“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.”[1]

Let me try to summarize the significance of this conclusion in three points:

1. Canadian courts will not intervene in church membership decisions where it’s alleged that the process was unfair

This potential implication left some churches scrambling to review their disciplinary processes to ensure that they met or surpassed Canadian legal standards (some of those are captured in this article by Paul Carter). Thanks to the Supreme Court, this will no longer be necessary, because as Justice Rowe put it,

“[T]here 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.”[2]

This broad conclusion applies not only to churches, but to any “voluntary associations”, whether they be chess clubs or churches.

When it comes to churches and religious organizations, however, Justice Rowe made a further, significant conclusion. He acknowledged that, in religious contexts, procedural rules may actually involve the interpretation of religious doctrinewhich is something that Canadian courts have never wanted to touch.

He cited the example of the three-step process in Matthew 18:15-17 and noted, “The courts lack the legitimacy and institutional capacity to determine whether the steps outlined in Matthew have been followed.”[3] This recognition by the court that doctrine doesn’t apply only to beliefs but extends to practices is a very welcome one that may have a significant impact on future religious freedom cases.

While all churches should still be encouraged to adopt and implement disciplinary procedures that are fair (and we can learn a lot about fairness from the Canadian legal system), they can now do so without the threat of judicial sanction looming over their shoulders.

2. Canadian courts will not intervene in church membership decisions where it has some economic impact on the disciplined member

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