On April 1, 2021, W.Glen How & Associates LLP, a Watch Tower law firm, with an address at the Canadian headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, gave notice of a civil claim against “Her Majesty the Queen in right of the Province of British Columbia”.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) is unconstitutional “insofar as PIPA fails to provide any exemption for non-commercial religious activity of religious organizations and individual ministers, particularly with respect to confidential religious communications”.
There are three plaintiffs in their law suit: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Canada, John Vabuolos, an elder from Grand Forks Congregation, and Paul Sidhu, an elder from the Coldstream Congregation. These are just 2 congregations representing a total of 215 congregations operating in 111 kingdom halls in British Columbia.
In their suit they claim that one must “gain a sufficient understanding of basic Bible teachings” before becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. While they say “There is no infant baptism” they fail to state that they do practice child baptism. Also, they claim that “A congregant is free, at any time, to cease being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses” but fail to mention that there is a severe penalty for doing so.
In the suit, they claim that “Personal information of congregants is collected, processed, and used by elders” and “All Jehovah’s Witnesses have knowledge of and consent to this by virtue of their free and willing decision to become and identify themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses”. This is a false claim. While most Jehovah’s Witnesses know that personal information is kept relating to their preaching activity, most Jehovah’s Witnesses are unaware that personal information is retained about them relating to serious wrongdoing they may have committed, or alleged to have committed.
They cite the publication, Organized to Do Jehovah’s Will, but conveniently refrain from referring to any particular page or chapter. In an effort to be helpful, Alert JW! has reviewed the book and is happy to detail what it says about data retention:
- Page 41 states that “The Secretary handles congregation records”.
- Page 47 states that “the circuit overseer examines the Congregation’s Publisher Records, meeting attendance records, territory records, and the accounts”.
- Page 83 states that the Congregation’s Publisher Record “belong to the local congregation” and that if a publisher (congregant) moves to another congregation, s/he is directed to inform his/her elders so that his/her publisher record is forwarded to the new congregation.
- Pages 148 – 155 discuss the matters of reproof, disfellowshipping, disassociation, reinstatement. Nowhere in those pages is their any mention that records relating to serious wrongdoing are collected, processed and used by elders.
To claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses have knowledge of and consent to the collection and processing of data relating to their alleged serious wrongdoing is a blatant lie. Even if Watch Tower were to revise the Organized to Do Jehovah’s Will book to clearly state that they document, collect and process personal data relating to judicial matters, it wouldn’t be enough. There are still decades of personal data belonging to current and former members who never had knowledge, and never consented to such collection and processing.
The Watch Tower lawyers claim that “Congregation elders are bound by ecclesiastical duty under Scripture and by internal religious procedures not to divulge confidential religious communications”. This is something we expect of any organization that handles personal data, and sensitive personal data. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a very small, close-knit community. It is well accepted by members and former members that gossip is a problem within congregations. Such gossip is exacerbated when a member is dealt with judicially by elders. Also, some elders are known to reveal some details of judicial matters to their wives and others. To say “Jehovah’s Witnesses highly value confidentiality” does not equate to “Jehovah’s Witnesses keep confidential matters confidential”. After all, congregation elders are bound by internal religious procedures to divulge the serious wrongdoing to all the congregation elders, and to share it with their branch office. All of this is done without the full knowledge or consent of the wrongdoer.
In their suit, they also claim, “Congregation elders maintain personal information only for as long as it is necessary to fulfill its religious purpose.” This sentence leaves out key information. There are various types of personal information that elders maintain. Each type of information would have a different set of retention periods. The book Organized to Do Jehovah’s Will does not have any details about records retention. However, the publication, Shepherd the Flock of God, which is intended for congregation elders’ eyes only, does include record retention information. In an effort to be helpful, ALERT JW! has reviewed the book and is happy to provide the following information:
- Chapter 22, paragraph 10 says that Letter of Introductions should be retained “for no longer than five years unless there is a need to keep it longer”.
- Chapter 22, paragraph 12 states, “service records should contain at least 13 months activity but no more than 36 months”. Incidentally, they refer to Chapter 8, para 30 of the Organized to Do Jehovah’s Will publication but that provides no details on records retention periods.
- Chapter 22, paragraph 16, shows that they retain “A record of the last 12 months of field service activity of an inactive publisher” and “the last 12 months of field service activity of a disfellowshipped or disassociated person”.
- Chapter 22, paragraph 18 tells elders, “congregation’s meeting attendance records should contain at least 13 months of attendance but no more than 36 months”.
- Chapter 22, paragraph 19 states, “Records related to the appointment and deletion of elders and ministerial servants should be retained indefinitely.”
- Chapter 22, paragraph 20 states that only the most recent Report on Circuit Overseer’s Visit With Congregation (S-303) is retained.
- Chapter 22, paragraph 22 states that for matters involving disfellowshipping, disassociation, or reinstatement, a brief summary of the proceedings; a notification of disfellowshipping or disassociation form; a congregation’s publisher record if not reinstated; any correspondence to or from the branch office regarding the wrongdoing; any letters of reinstatement; any letter of disassociation; are all to be placed into a sealed enveloped.
- Chapter 22, paragraph 22 shows that the sealed enveloped has less information for reproofs.
- Chapter 22, paragraph 26 states, “The Sealed envelopes containing records on individuals who have not been reinstated should be kept indefinitely. If the person has been reinstated a full five years or has died, usually the file should be destroyed unless the case involved an accusation of child sexual abuse or an adulterous marriage or the committee believes there is some other reason to retain it. The same retention policy applies to records involving judicial reproof and wrongdoing handled by one or two elders.”
- Chapter 22, paragraph 27 says that a “file should be kept for five years after the judicial action” where a person entered an adulterous marriage. It goes on to say that such information should be held “as long as the innocent former mater is alive, unmarried, and has not been guilty of sexual immorality”.
In view of the foregoing, is it any wonder then that Watch Tower’s suit goes on to say, “Requiring that in all situations elders obtain explicit consent, provide access to, or delete religious communications containing personal information, would unduly infringe on the elders’ religious beliefs and practices, and grossly interfere with their function and ability to care for and spiritually protect the congregation.”?
One aspect of the suit that we can all agree on, is that some of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ “Confidential religious communications contain sensitive and personal information regarding religious adherence and elders’ subjective religious views”. This is the category of information that is collected without the ordinary members’ knowledge or consent. As owners of our own personal data, we have a right to know what sensitive and personal information about us is being kept. We have a right to access our information. We have a right to have it deleted. And we have a right to be forgotten by our former religious group. “While much of the information collected is voluntarily provided by the individual congregant receiving spiritual support”, none of it is provided with a view that it would be documented and retained in any sort of retrieval system.
Though such a “summary will assist the elders at a later time to determine whether a person who so wishes can be reinstated into the congregation and resume religious association with fellow congregants”, there are those who may never want to be reinstated. Shouldn’t members have the right to decide if they want elders to hold on to their personal information? Shouldn’t former members have the right to have their personal information deleted if they so wish, in the knowledge that future reinstatement would not be possible if they do so? A former member could do what any other person must do if they want to “become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses”: Once again, “he or she must study the Bible and gain a sufficient understanding of basic Bible teachings. He or she must also be living according to the Bible’s standards of conduct and morality. Once the congregation elders have determined a person meets the Scriptural qualifications, the person may submit to water baptism and become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses”.
When you consider the above paragraph, for a former member to request access to, or to request destruction of their personal data, it does not infringe on a group’s freedom to practice their religion. They can do so without infringing on the rights of an individual.
To claim that PIPA is unconstitutional is false. Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Canada are using religious freedom as a means to ensure they can continue to psychologically terrorize former members through the implementation of shunning. If a former member is no longer on their records, they have no means to keep track of former members and thus ensuring their current members shun them. Indeed, in their suit, they reveal their contempt for former members when they state, “by empowering malcontents and busybodies to use PIPA and the OIPC [(Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia)] to berate and harass their former religious community and obtain access to confidential religious summaries (which contain third-party personal information and religious belief) for the purpose of ridiculing and maligning a religious minority and individuals with that community on social media”.
The only ones who are “malcontents” are former members who want to exercise their right to have the access to their personal data and/or their right to have it deleted because they no longer want to be identified as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The “busybodies” are also former members who know a little bit about data protection and help other former members when asked. Neither the malcontents or busybodies are looking for access to and/or destruction of their personal data “for the purpose of ridiculing and maligning a religious minority”. This is a patently false claim.
Court File No. VLC-S-S-213199 (Dated 01 April 2021)