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Leviathan Reborn

Spencer Morrison (2L)

Leviathan has again raised his ugly head, and we are left to live with the disturbing consequences.

The story begins in 2014, when Randy Wall, a Calgary realtor and a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, was expelled from the Highwood Congregation by a panel of elders. His crime?  Getting drunk and insulting his wife. His defence?  His teenage daughter had just been expelled from the church, and he was pressured to shun her. Wall appealed this decision, but a second panel of elders upheld the expulsion because he was “not sufficiently repentant.” He appealed again, but the third level refused to listen. Wall was out of luck.

Or was he? Perhaps out of desperation or perhaps for revenge, Wall decided to take the church to court: he argued that they could not expel him, he was plenty repentant, and expelling him would destroy his business since half of his clients were Jehovah’s witnesses. The Court of Queen’s Bench bizarrely found that it had the authority to hear the case, and this was upheld on appeal. It may head to the Supreme Court, but in the meantime we are left with a disaster of a precedent.

This is a terrible decision, and a breathtaking example of judicial overreach. Remember the separation of church and state? Gone. If this decision stands, it opens up ecclesiastical decisions to judicial review, provided they somehow have “an economic impact on” the plaintiff. This could include just about anything. For example, say a Catholic restaurateur gets a secular divorce and is excommunicated, and his church stops hosting functions at his restaurant. He now has grounds to fight his excommunication in court. Ridiculous.

Now keep in mind, this is not an unlikely hypothetical; it happens all the time. Recently the United Church defrocked one of its ministers, Greta Vosper, because she was an avowed atheist; they took away her full time job and “shunned” her from the community. Should she be able to appeal this decision in court? Back to Randy Wall: does the court really have the religious authority to determine if he is sufficiently repentant?

Regardless of whether or not the court is even competent to decide on ecclesiastical issues (it is not), there are a million good reasons why they should not. First among them is this: the court should not be forcing voluntary religious organizations to accept as one of their own someone they reject. If the Jehovah’s Witnesses only want to include other Jehovah’s in their congregation, that is their business. If the Catholic Church wants to exclude Lutherans from the Eucharist, that is their business. The court should not have the power to compel religious bodies to compromise their exclusivity because someone feels excluded— that is the whole point: believers are included, unbelievers are not.

That being said, this whole debate is meaningless because even if Wall wins, I doubt other Jehovah’s will invite him over for dinner like they used to or buy their houses from him.  Not even the Supreme Court can force people to be friends.