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Release: Supreme Court of Canada clarifies role of courts when reviewing decisions of private religious associations

For immediate release

OTTAWA – Today, Thursday, May 31, 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada issued its decision in Highwood Congregation v. Wall, a case considering whether membership decisions of religious communities and other voluntary associations are protected from state and judicial interference. Central to the case is the right of private religious associations to determine for themselves the conditions of membership in their association, including when and how members can be removed.

Mr. Wall asked an Alberta court to review the decision of his religious congregation to remove him from the congregation. Mr. Wall argued, based on public law principles, that the decision was procedurally unfair. The question for the Supreme Court of Canada was whether public law principles apply to membership decisions of private religious organizations.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) intervened in the case to urge respect for the decision-making independence of private, unincorporated religious associations. Where a religious association’s decision may fall within the jurisdiction of a Canadian judge, the BCCLA highlighted the importance of clear prerequisites for, and limits to, judicial intervention.

In today’s decision, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that judicial review for procedural fairness is only available where there is an exercise of state authority that is public in nature, which the Court found was not the case here. Courts must only weigh in on justiciable issues that relate to decisions of voluntary associations if legal rights are at stake and the claim is founded on an otherwise valid cause of action, such as, for example, contract, tort or restitution. The Supreme Court found that the ecclesiastical issues raised by this case are not justiciable, as courts have neither legitimacy nor institutional capacity to deal with contentious matters of religious doctrine.

Jay Aubrey, Counsel with the BCCLA, stated: “We appreciate the Court’s clear decision today. The right of private religious organizations to determine their membership in accordance with the beliefs of their membership is essential to their continued existence. The form and content of membership decisions are often inextricably intertwined with the deeply held religious beliefs of the association’s members, so having courts regulate membership decisions would improperly put judges in the position of supervising and weighing in on the substance of religious beliefs.”

The BCCLA is represented by Roy Millen of Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP.

The BCCLA’s argument in the case can be found here.
The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada can be found here.

WHAT: SCC issued reasons for judgment in Highwood Congregation v. Wall

WHEN: Thursday, May 31, 2018 at 6:45 am ET/9:45 am PT

WHERE: Supreme Court of Canada (Ottawa, Ontario)

CONTACT: Jay Aubrey, BCCLA Litigation Counsel, at [email protected]