THE World Sikh Organization of Canada on Thursday presented oral arguments at the Supreme Court of Canada in the landmark case in Highwood Congregation v. Wall, a case questioning whether courts can judicially review membership decisions taken by private religious associations.
The facts of Highwood Congregation v. Wall revolve around Wall who was “dis-fellowed” (expelled) from his Jehovah’s Witness congregation due to allegations of drunkenness and misbehavior with his family. Wall brought an application for Judicial Review of the Congregation’s decision alleging that the expulsion affected his livelihood as a realtor since many of his clients were Jehovah’s Witnesses who no longer gave him business. The Court of Queen’s Bench concluded that the Court had jurisdiction to hear the Judicial Review application based on Wall’s economic interest on whether he was afforded due process before this disfellowship.
The Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the lower court decision. The Congregation then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The WSO was granted intervener status in the case by the Supreme Court of Canada on August 24, 2017.
On Thursday, the Highwood appeal was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada and WSO legal counsel Balpreet Singh presented oral arguments on behalf of the organization. The WSO argued that the Charter Value of state religious neutrality constrains the court from judicially reviewing the membership of private religious associations. WSO argued that courts should only be permitted in rare instances to intervene in religious practices, where the Charter’s broader free and democratic aims are at stake, and the court’s intervention would preserve or promote these objectives in a meaningful way and where maintaining neutrality would result in actual and significant harm. The WSO’s complete factum can be seen here.
WSO legal counsel Balpreet Singh said, “While this case is with respect to the expulsion of a Jehovah’s Witness member by the elders in his congregation, we believe that the result of this case could impact other religious communities as well, including Sikhs. Religious associations must be allowed to choose whom to worship with, without state interference. In the Sikh faith, any decision taken by the Punj Pyare are binding, however if Wall’s arguments are successful, such decisions would potentially be subject to review as well. We believe it was important for the Court to hear about this matter from a Sikh perspective.”
This was the fourth time the WSO has appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada and the third time in a case involving a non-Sikh appellant. In 2004, WSO intervened in Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, on behalf of the Jewish community`s rights to religious freedom, in 2005, WSO intervened in Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite‑Bourgeoys with respect to the right of a Sikh student to wear his kirpan at school and in 2014 WSO intervened in Loyola High School, et al. v. Attorney General of Quebecregarding whether legal persons such as a organizations, schools and institutions can claim protection under the Canadian Charter of Rights for freedom of religion.
The World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) is a non-profit organization with a mandate to promote and protect the interests of Canadian Sikhs, as well as to promote and advocate for the protection of human rights of all individuals, irrespective of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and social and economic status. The WSO has recently worked with the Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia provincial governments to create accommodation policies for the kirpan in courthouses.