A Question of Religious Freedom

This one is definitely going to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Emotionally I am cheering for the individual, caught up in a group I see as a Christian heresy designed for profit not faith building. Intellectually I see no choice but to support the organization. The principle of religious freedom should not be based on my theological likes or dislikes.

When the court weighs in, in a couple of years I would imagine, they will probably side with the individual. They will be historically wrong, but consistent with their recent rulings that the needs/wants of the one should be imposed on the many.

The individual in question was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian group that has been around for about 150 years. (Some people reading this are probably appalled that I would refer to this organization as Christian, but as a sometime scholar of religion, I know this is an accurate label for descriptive purposes, even if their theology is screwy.) The man fell afoul of the powers that be, who ordered him shunned. That means no-one who follows that faith could have anything to do with him, including family members.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a pretty closed group, a sub-society. Shunning is a very effective form of discipline. You can make a Biblical case for it, though that depends a lot on your interpretation of scripture. I think though that it makes it tough for someone to repent if you aren’t talking with them. But maybe they really don’t want shunned people to repent.

You would think this case really doesn’t belong in secular courts, that it is solely an internal matter within the religion. After all, if you voluntarily associate with a group, you accept the benefits and deficits of membership. But there’s more to the case.

The shunned man works in real estate. Most of his clients and prospective clients are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now they won’t have anything to do with him and business is suffering as a result. (You knew there would be money involved, right? Money always trumps ‎faith, at least for a lot of people.) So off to court we go, looking to force the organization to “un-shun” him. (If un-shun ever shows up in the dictionary, remember you read it here first.)

I have a couple of problems with the case, the first being religious freedom. When you voluntarily join with a religious group you agree to abide by the rules. It is not up to society at large to determine the rules (or beliefs) for each religion. Has this individual been mistreated by Jehovah’s Witness leadership? The courts seem to think so. From what I have read of the situation, I would agree it appears the treatment was unfair. But what would you expect from an organization that used to be labelled a cult? Strict control, and the occasional example, helps keep everyone in line. No-one forced the man to do business primarily with people who shared his faith – that was his choice. There’s a proverb somewhere about keeping your eggs in one basket.

Given the strict control that organizations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses exercise on their followers, I wonder just how useful a court decision is to any individual in this situation. The court can order his un-shunning. Leadership can publicize that. But will people, knowing the situation, welcome the man back with open arms? Or will it be more a matter of giving lip-service to a court ruling while continuing the non-contact policy. The shunning would become unofficial, but still be there.

Which is where the system breaks down. No court can force me to talk to someone I don’t want to talk to. It may at times seem to some people like we live in a police state, but some choices will always remain with the individual.


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