Three questions on doctrine in the courts and the Wall case

31 May 2018

The Supreme Court of Canada released a decision on the Wall case on May 31, 2018. This case asked whether courts have jurisdiction over the membership and identity decisions of organizations like churches. We asked EFC President Bruce Clemenger about it.

  • For more details, see our longer summary of the case of Wall v. Judicial Committee of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. The EFC co-intervened with the Catholic Civil Rights League in the case.
  • Check out more of our Three Questions Series of short online interviews.

Q1. What was at stake in this case?

In this case, the lower courts concluded that the court should have jurisdiction over the church’s decisions on membership or discipline, even though historically courts have not weighed into these matters. The Supreme Court of Canada said no, that courts have neither the legitimacy nor the capacity to enter into decisions that are rooted in doctrine, such as membership and discipline.

This decision doesn’t mean that churches have complete immunity from the courts in matters involving contracts or property rights. Those are still in the court’s purview. But this case involved the doctrinal issues of membership and discipline, and in those areas, the court said it has no jurisdiction.

Q2. What did the EFC and the Catholic Civil Rights League argue in this case?

We argued:

  • Churches have the right to determine and maintain their religious identity.
  • The state should not interfere with the ecclesiastical decisions of religious communities, including decisions related to membership and discipline.

One of our key arguments, our unique thrust, was that the courts just don’t have the expertise or competency to engage in these kinds of doctrinal decisions. In our factum, we point out that a dispute arising over the discipline of an unrepentant member would involve the interpretation of scripture, theology and/or doctrine.

As we stated, “In such a context, would the Courts be expected to provide a judicial interpretation of scripture? Or of moral theology? Or doctrine? The Courts are simply not qualified to conduct such an inquiry and to do so would be a grave violation of (1) freedom of religion; (2) freedom of association; and (3) the State’s obligation to remain religiously neutral.”

The Supreme Court affirmed this principle, stating in the decision, “courts should not decide matters of religious dogma. … The courts have neither legitimacy nor institutional capacity to deal with such issues, and have repeatedly declined to consider them…”

Q3. Why is this decision important?

In this decision, the court affirmed that religious groups are free to decide their own membership and rules, and the court shouldn’t intervene. This is an important affirmation of the religious freedom that churches have in Canada to base decisions about membership and discipline on Scripture.

If the court had ruled otherwise, then any decision a church makes on discipline or membership could have been subject to lawsuits. The church would have had to go to court to justify decisions made on the basis of religious doctrine. This would leave the court to decide whether religious doctrine was applied correctly, which would directly involve the court in the interpretation of religious teaching.

As the decision states, “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.”

Author: Bruce J. Clemenger