British Columbia justice stays Jehovah’s Witness challenge on privacy of records

A British Columbia Supreme Court (BCSC) justice has granted a stay of civil proceedings on a case regarding the constitutionality of privately held church records.

The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Canada, a charitable religious corporation representing Jehovah’s Witnesses across Canada, alleges the application of BC’s privacy legislation, PIPA, violates their constitutional right to religious freedom under sections 2 and 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The allegation comes amid a bid by two former Jehovah’s Witnesses to have personal information collected by two separate congregations released to them pursuant to PIPA. The spiritual leaders of the individual congregations, John Vabuolas and Paul Sidhu, denied their former members’ requests. The former members brought a complaint before the BC privacy commission, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC), regarding the issue and are now awaiting a decision.

The spiritual leaders contend that the right of access created by PIPA fails to consider the sensitive religious nature of private communications and information that the spiritual leaders are “required by their faith to create and preserve in order to properly care for the spiritual welfare of individual congregants and of their respective congregation.”

The spiritual leaders contend that the compelled release of information relevant to a member’s spiritual health, something that the leaders are charged under their faith to conceal and protect, violates Charter protections.

The documents in question allegedly contain information disclosed to the spiritual leaders from their former members as to why they have decided to leave the congregation, the conversations that followed the announcement of their decision, as well as personal responses from the leaders.

The spiritual leaders sought injunctive relief to stay the proceedings before the OIPC because the constitutional nature of the proceedings, they contend, requires the expertise of the courts. The Attorney General of BC instead argues that the proceeding should continue in accordance with the OIPC’s statutory mandate, noting that the OIPC has the situational expertise to handle the privacy issue.

The BCSC agreed with the Attorney General, finding that there is “substantial overlap” between the two proceedings, the OIPC review, and this civil case, and that it has yet to be determined if the documents in question are even subject to the protections afforded in PIPA. As such, the spiritual leaders failed to establish that injunctive relief was appropriate, and ordered the interim stay until the OIPC concluded their adjudication.