A former North Okanagan Jehovah’s Witness has scored a minor legal victory in getting the religious organization to hand over personal information it holds about them, following a ruling from B.C.’s privacy commissioner.
The Coldstream Jehovah’s Witness Congregation had refused to hand over personal information of its former member and argued that doing so would infringe on its charter rights.
The case involves two former Jehovah’s Witnesses, referred to only as LW and GW in the court document.
Roughly 10 years ago GW was a member of the Coldstream Jehovah’s Witnesses Congregation and LW was a member of the Grand Forks Jehovah’s Witnesses Congregation.
Separately both individuals filed requests through the Personal Information Protection Act but both Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Congregations refused.
The June 20 Information and Privacy Commissioner decision says both former members then asked the Commissioner to become involved and the Attorney General of British Columbia.
According to the decision, the records the former Jehovah’s Witnesses requested relate to a confidential religious summary about their decisions to no longer be a Jehovah’s Witness.
However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Congregations argued it is unconstitutional to make them hand over the information as it breaches their right as a religious organization under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“(Jehovah’s Witness) elders share a deeply-held religious conviction that disclosing the records would violate their religious conscience and hinder their ability to spiritually shepherd congregants,” the decision reads.
The decision says when a Jehovah’s Witness decides to leave the organization, a committee of three elders is appointed by the congregation to meet with the individual and try to restore the person’s spirituality.
The information is written down, sealed in an envelope, and kept under lock and key.
“It is part of our religious obligation and canon law that this record be kept strictly confidential. The elders who meet with the individual do not share the confidential religious summary with other elders who are not authorized to be involved in the spiritual restorative discipline,” the Jehovah’s Witness submitted in an affidavit. “Requiring congregation elders to hand over a confidential religious record as requested by LW and GW would be contrary to the elders’ religious obligation under canon law and would seriously impede them from carrying out their religious and Scriptural responsibilities before God.”
The Attorney General argued that handing over the information did not interfere with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ ability to act in accordance with their practices and beliefs.
“The requirement neither threatens religious beliefs nor prevents congregation members from manifesting those beliefs by engaging in any religious activities,” the Attorney General argued.
Outside of the legalities of holding on to the records, GW argues that there is a high probability that many elders have seen the records.
“When one thinks of confidentiality, one may call to mind a kind priest listening to the confession of a church member and seeking to help this individual. This confidential information would go no further. This is obviously not the environment within the organization. Confidential information is shared between multiple elders, circuit overseers and the branch office where any number of individuals could have access to this personal information,” GW says in the document.
The former Jehovah’s Witness accuses the elders of “exaggerating” the proceedings as if it is a “forbidden domain of religious belief and doctrine.”
The privacy adjudicator also pointed out it has not seen the records.
“The challenge I face, however, is that the (Jehovah’s Witness Congregations) have refused to produce the disputed records for my review,” the privacy adjudicator said. “I have concluded that, without seeing them, it is not possible to decide whether they contain personal information or whose personal information may be included.”
The adjudicator went on to say that without seeing them it could not make an informed decision.
Ultimately, the privacy adjudicator ordered the Grand Forks Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Coldstream Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses to hand over the records containing GW’s and LW’s personal information to the commissioner.
The congregations have until Aug. 3 to produce the records.