B.C. Jehovah's Witnesses lose court battle over disclosing records on 2 ex-members

Legal (CSA)
Howard Friedman. (January 11, 2024 Thursday). British Columbia Court Says Jehovah's Witness Elders Must Submit Confidential Documents to Privacy Commissioner. WebNews - English.

The B.C. Supreme Court has ruled against two congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses that tried to argue their religious freedoms were infringed when the information and privacy commissioner ordered them to turn over records containing personal information about two former members.

On Monday, Justice Steven Wilson upheld an order requiring the Coldstream and Grand Forks congregations to disclose records concerning the ex-members' breaks with the church to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC).

The Jehovah's Witnesses had argued that the sealed records contain confidential religious discussions between church elders about membership matters, and releasing them would violate their rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But the judge disagreed, saying that any violation of the congregations' religious freedoms in this case was reasonably justifiable in a free, democratic society.

"While production of the disputed records to the commissioner is not an insubstantial breach of the congregation elders' right to religious freedom under s. 2(a) of the Charter, it nonetheless furthers the interests of society as a whole by ensuring access to their personal information," Wilson wrote.

He pointed out that the order did not require the congregations to release the records to the former members who'd requested them, but only to the OIPC to determine whether they should be released under the Personal Information Protection Act. The law regulates the collection, use and disclosure of personal information by private organizations like churches. 

The judge said the duties to disclose imposed by the law are meant to give British Columbians some measure of control over their personal information.

"The requirement to disclose information is a tool available to individuals to hold organizations accountable for the collection, use, and disclosure of personal information. It also serves as a deterrent to misuse and allows individuals some measure of control over their personal information," Wilson wrote.

The B.C. Humanist Association intervened in the case, and is applauding the outcome.

"An individual's right to privacy is crucial. We're pleased to see the court recognize the importance of upholding that right," the organization's executive director, Ian Bushfield, said in a news release.

Constitutional challenge to the law

The original requests for information came from Gabriel Liberty Wall, who used to belong to the congregation in Grand Forks, and Gregory Lyle Westgarde, who was part of the Coldstream congregation, according to the judgment.

The two men independently asked the congregations for records containing their personal information in 2020, and both were told they could not see documents concerning their disassociation from the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Wall and Westgarde turned to the OIPC, but the congregations told an adjudicator that the record at issue was "a confidential religious summary prepared by a committee of three congregation elders pertaining to spiritual status decisions," the judgment says.

In June 2022, the OIPC adjudicator ordered the congregations to turn over their records for review. They in turn filed a petition for judicial review, alleging that the Personal Information Protection Act is unconstitutional.

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The church argued that religion should be included in an exemption to the act that says organizations are not required to disclose someone's personal information to them if it has been collected solely for journalistic, artistic or literary purposes.

The judge described that as a bridge too far.

"Reading in such an exemption would significantly compromise the government's objective in giving individuals the ability to control their personal information," Wilson wrote.

He pointed out that even under the current exemption, the privacy commissioner still has the power to review the requested information to see if it truly was collected only for the purpose of journalism, art or literature.

The Jehovah's Witnesses had also argued that if the documents were disclosed, they might be published more widely "for the purposes of mocking either the petitioners or elders, causing unnecessary embarrassment."

Wilson countered that as long as the documents remain secret, "the concerns are impossible to assess because the record is incomplete."

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