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"Should I Stay or Should I Go?" 


The legality of disagreeing with your religion

The Firpo Files Digital Newsmagazine

 by Dr. Firpo Carr, Ph.D.

January 10, 2019



In 1991 the hit song Should I Stay or Should I Go? by the English punk rock band the Clash topped Britain’s UK Singles Chart. When this question is framed in a religious setting with a legal backdrop, the implications can be far-reaching. For example, Hatice Molla Sali, a Greek Muslim woman asked herself if she should stay in a situation dictated by Islamic law (shariah), or should she go to court to overturn it. Randy Wall, a former Canadian member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, asked himself if he should stay disfellowshipped, or should he go to court to fight the ecclesiastical expulsion.


Both cases of Sali and Wall ended up in the highest court of their respective regions, and the reverberations of these individual rulings may eventually be felt around the world.  


My Interest: Aside from my decades-long study of Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other religions, as a psychologist belonging to three American Psychological Association divisions, in particular, has piqued my interest in these cases. These divisions are: Division 36: Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence: Peace Psychology Division, and Division 52: International Psychology.


What the ex-Witness Wanted: Wall took the Witnesses to court for disfellowshipping him. Along with negatively impacting his real estate business, he felt the action was unfair and a violation of his civil rights.


The Supreme Court of Canada explained: “A member must live according to accepted standards of conduct and morality. A member who deviates and does not repent may be asked to appear before a Judicial Committee of elders and may be disfellowshipped. In 2014, W was disfellowshipped after he engaged in sinful behaviour and was considered to be insufficiently repentant. The decision was confirmed by an Appeal Committee [of experienced elders from nearby congregations].”


The Witnesses believe that members “should not associate with people who call themselves brothers or sisters in the Christian faith but live in sexual sin, are greedy, worship false gods, use abusive language, get drunk, or are dishonest. Don’t eat with such people.” (1 Corinthians 5:11, God’s Word Translation)


A few of the particulars of the Supreme Court ruling state that “the Congregation is a voluntary association,” and that activities of the congregation and scriptural guidance “are provided on a volunteer basis by a group of elders” (all emphasis mine).


The Witnesses argued that internal judicial dynamics that may result in disfellowshipping are off limits to the judiciary. However, the lower court and Court of Appeal demurred. In fact, in a majority ruling, the Court of Appeal concluded that “courts may intervene in the decisions of voluntary associations where there is a breach of the rules of natural justice or where the complainant has exhausted internal dispute resolution processes.” (Emphasis supplied.)


The Supreme Court of Canada disagreed. On May 21, 2018, it unanimously ruled in favor of the Witnesses. (See above after end of English translation.) But, would that have been the end of the matter if this case was filed in a western European country?


What the Muslim Demanded: Sali insisted that Islamic law was unfair and discriminatory when it determined that her deceased husband’s sisters, who invoked sharia, should receive the lion’s share of his estate. Sali appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France, and the panel of 17 judges from across Europe announced on December 19, 2018, that they had upheld her complaint of discrimination and unfair treatment by the sharia council. Significantly, this case demonstrates that ecclesiastical law is no longer impenetrable by secular law.  


An article in The Economist (December 30, 2018; see above after English translation) noted that “if a person in Britain or any other west European country feels her interests have been harmed by a sharia council, and that the secular law of the land has failed to redress this harm, she now stands a chance of making a successful appeal to the ECHR.”


In other words, the ECHR agreed—at least in principle—with Wall’s trial court and Court of Appeal. Would he have won in Europe? Is this a green light for disgruntled disfellowshipped Witnesses in western Europe to appeal to the ECHR? Are Wall’s and Sali’s cases a matter of comparing apples to oranges?


Questions abound.





Supreme Court of Canada ruling on disfellowship Jehovah’s Witness: https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/17101/index.do



European Court of Human Rights The Economist article on ECHR decision regarding Muslim woman: https://www.economist.com/erasmus/2018/12/20/across-europe-the-practice-of-islamic-family-law-is-under-pressure?cid1=cust/ddnew/email/n/n/20181220n/owned/n/n/ddnew/n/n/n/nNA/Daily_Dispatch/email&etear=dailydispatch&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Daily_Dispatch&utm_term=20181220