Photo: Jon Manchester
Jehovah’s Witness congregations in Coldstream and Grand Forks have been ordered to turn over documents to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
In a decision rendered June 20 by director of adjudication Elizabeth Barker, the commission determined the church must hand over records on two former members so it can decide “what access to the records, if any, the applicants should be given.”
Last year, a BC Supreme Court judge stayed a court challenge by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Canada, saying the privacy commission is the best venue to make a ruling.
The church had refused to turn over personal records sought by former Jehovah’s Witnesses Gregory Westgarde and Gabriel-Liberty Wall.
The two former members are seeking return of their personal records.
The congregations refused the requests, claiming the records are confidential and that compelling production violates their constitutional rights.
The church believes the Personal Information Protection Act does not apply to it, but the adjudicator disagreed.
While Barker found measures in PIPA do infringe freedom of religion, that infringement is justifiable under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Barker said the congregations did not establish that PIPA infringes freedom of expression, freedom of association or unreasonable search and seizure under the Charter.
The church, meanwhile, has filed a petition for judicial review, says its lawyer, Jayden MacEwan of W. Glen How & Associates.
Commission documents reveal the congregations refused access on the basis the records were “confidential
The matter could not be resolved in mediation and proceeded to inquiry.
Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t have paid clergy. Instead, each congregation has a group of voluntary, appointed elsewhere who are responsible for taking the spiritual lead.
The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, meanwhile, is a charitable religious corporation the objectives of which include: “To commence or defend legal proceedings to preserve freedom of religion, expression, assembly, and press; to uphold the basic rule of law and the liberties provided in the Constitution of Canada.”
Several years after Westgarde left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he requested the Grand Forks congregation provide him a copy of all records that contain information about him.
Liberty Wall did the same 10 years after leaving the Coldstream congregation. The church initially told him it did not have any of his personal information, but later revised its response to say that his personal information was in a record that “constitutes a confidential religious communication, privileged under the common law and Charter.”
“The respondents have not produced the disputed records for me to review in this inquiry,” Barker wrote in her decision. “They contend that disclosing the records to anyone, including the commissioner, would violate the Charter rights and freedoms of all the elders in the two congregations and all other elders and Jehovah’s Witnesses in British Columbia.
“The respondents’ uncontradicted evidence is that the elsewhere are ecclesiastical appointees. In particular, the elsewhere say they did not prepare the records as part of their responsibilities to the congregations; rather they prepared them ‘as part of a ‘sacred ecclesiastical duty’ to God to help ‘restore erring ones’ and maintain the ‘scripturally moral and spiritual integrity of our congregations’ in the collective sense of the religious denomination of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Barker wrote that without seeing the documents, “it is not possible to decide whether they contain personal information or whose personal information may be included.”
The church was ordered to hand over the records by Aug. 3, but has sought the review in BC Supreme Court to halt the process.
A decision in the matter could have ramifications across the country for congregations holding records on former members.