An important victory at the Canadian Supreme Court

By Jonathon Van Maren

Canadian Christians won an extremely important victory at the Supreme Court of Canada today. The Association of Reformed Political Action, a Christian advocacy group rooted in the Reformed theological tradition, summarized it this way in a press release sent out today:

Can the decision of a church or religious body to expel a member be appealed to a civil court? 

This question made its way up to the Supreme Court of Canada in Wall v Judicial Committee of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Court’s decision was released today.

The lower court judge, Justice Wilson, and a majority at the Alberta Court of Appeal, answered the above question in the affirmative. However, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) unanimously reversed the lower courts’ decisions. 

The SCC reversed the lower courts for three reasons: 1) judicial review applies to public decision makers, which the Congregation is not, 2) there is no free-standing right to be treated fairly absent an underlying legal right, and 3) the ecclesiastical issues involved in this case are not justiciable – that is, they involve subject matter that is not appropriate for a court to decide. 

The Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) Canada applauds the Supreme Court for clearly articulating the proper scope and limits of judicial review and the jurisdictional limits of civil courts. This case will stand as a clear precedent protecting the independence of religious bodies. It will also stand as a reminder to all judges of the virtue of judicial humility.

Any expansion of state power at the expense of individual religious institutions is very dangerous, and it is encouraging to see the highest court in Canada affirm that the courts are not the appropriate place for ecclesiastical matters to be decided. Canada’s lower courts consistently create precedents that are damaging to freedom of speech and expression as well as religious liberty, and the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada still frequently repudiates their judicial activism is something to be thankful for.

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Note: I did an interview with Don Hutchinson, the author of the seminal work on religious liberty in Canada Under Siege, some time ago. His research is fundamental to understanding religious freedom in the Canadian judicial context.

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