Ex-Jehovah's Witnesses have right to personal data: Privacy Commissioner

Religious organizations are not exempt from disclosures of personal information under BC's privacy law, according to a new ruling by BC's Privacy Commissioner.

The BC Humanist Association is hailing the decision as a victory for secularism and the rights of apostates and those who leave religious communities.

The case was initiated after two ex-Jehovah's Witnesses, referred to as LW and GW in the ruling, had separately requested all records about themselves held by their former congregations in Grand Forks and Coldstream, respectively. In both cases the congregations refused to provide all of the records they held citing "confidential religious communication." The applicants requested the privacy commissioner review the congregations' refusals.

Elizabeth Barker, the Director of Adjudication for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia, heard the arguments and issued a ruling in favour of the applicants on Monday.

Barker found that the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) applies to the congregations. She also found that while the Act infringes on the congregations' right to freedom of religion, that infringement was justified under Section 1 of the Charter. She also dismissed claims that the Act infringed on their freedom of expression, freedom of association and their right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association:

This is a big win for the rights of individual congregants and the ex-religious. The congregations' arguments, if adopted, would have meant that any religious group would have an extraordinary exemption from their obligations under privacy laws. It would give religious leadership incredible powers to coerce current and former members.

Barker wrote that "It would be unnecessarily sweeping to exclude religious organizations and the personal information under their control from PIPA." Further "The purpose of the infringing measures is to provide individuals a meaningful way to protect their personal information under an organization’s control. What the respondents suggest would completely undermine and defeat that purpose."

The adjudicator ordered the congregations to provide her with all records in their possession that contain LW and GW's personal information by August 3, 2022. She will then review those records to determine what should be disclosed to the applicants in accordance with the Act.

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