Canada Sept. 13, 2017

Catholic Civil Rights League to intervene in freedom of association case

By Deborah Gyapong

The Catholic Civil Rights League will be intervening in a freedom of association coming before the Supreme Court of Canada on Nov. 2.

OTTAWA (CCN)—The Catholic Civil Rights League will be intervening in a freedom of association case coming before the Supreme Court of Canada on Nov. 2.

The league will be intervening jointly with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada in the case of the Judicial Committee of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses & Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses v. Randy Wall.

Randy Wall was disfellowshipped by the elders of his local Jehovah’s Witness congregation, and Wall sought a judicial review of the decision, arguing the removal of his membership from the church and the consequent shunning by Jehovah’s Witnesses had a negative economic impact on his real estate business.

The Supreme Court of Canada will determine whether the courts have the jurisdiction to determine who has the right to belong to voluntary associations, whether religious or non-religious.

For the league, the case has an important religious freedom dimension.

“Freedom of Religion for all in a free society must never be relegated to what we do in our places of worship typically once a week,” said Christian Elia, executive director of the League, in an email interview. “Freedom of religion entails that religious groups have the right to self-govern in accordance with their faith tradition.”

“The state must not get involved in internal disciplinary measures exercised by religions within the realm of their own clerical system and congregational membership,” Elia said.

Both a lower court and the Albert Court of Appeal ruled the courts did have jurisdiction in the Wall case.

“Historically Canadian courts have determined that they do not have jurisdiction in the internal decisions of churches and other private associations,” said the EFC in a release. “For churches, decisions about membership and church discipline are matters of doctrine and the interpretation of Scripture. The courts have recognized that matters of doctrine and theology are beyond their expertise.”

The league and the EFC will argue for the importance “for religious communities to be able to define their membership and to protect their religious character, identity and integrity,” said the EFC.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has also been granted intervener status and will argue “freedom of association under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Alberta Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of private, voluntary associations, including the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, to determine membership criteria, to determine which individuals meet the criteria for membership, and to enforce these membership criteria, immune from judicial review.”

“In consequence, neither courts nor governments can legally compel citizens to associate together unwillingly,” said a release from the centre. “The Justice Centre’s legal argument promotes the understanding that freedom of association benefits Canada’s atheists and agnostics, and the many theists who do not embrace any particular religion.”

“It is an unjustifiable violation of the freedom of association to compel members of a voluntary association to associate involuntarily with an individual that the members have determined does not meet, or no longer meets, the membership criteria the association has established,” said Justice Centre president John Carpay. 

“The freedom of association necessarily imparts to private associations, whether religious or non-religious, the right to exclude individuals who do not meet the membership criteria as set by the association.”

This case is important especially for Catholics because so many of the Church’s faith positions are “seen as counter-cultural today,” Elia said.

“Roman Catholics support an all-male clergy,” he said. “Catholics believe in the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. Catholics believe that gender is not a social construct, that we are created male and female; and finally, Catholics believe in marriage between a man and a woman, with the family being the basis of society.”

Though admitting the Church has a way to go in “winning hearts and minds, Elia stressed: “We must, however, maintain that as Catholics we have the freedom to support these beliefs in our institutions such as schools and hospitals and we must resist the state’s attempt to curtail our rights to govern ourselves.”