Obligatory Oaths of Allegiance and freedom of religion: Wirring

May a professional obligation to swear an Oath of Allegiance to one’s Head of State violate one’s rights to religious freedom and equality? That was the question before the Court of King’s Bench of Alberta in Wirring v Law Society of Alberta 2023 ABKB 580 (CanLII).


Mr Wirring is an amritdhari Sikh. He graduated in law from Dalhousie University, completed his articles and applied to be admitted to the Law Society and practise law in Alberta. The Legal Profession Act RSA 2000 requires an applicant for admission as a solicitor in Alberta to swear various oaths in open court before a judge including the Oath of Allegiance, which required the applicant to swear or affirm at the time in question that “I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors, according to law.”

On 9 June 2022, he filed a Statement of Claim challenging the obligation to swear the Oath of Allegiance, though no concerns were raised with respect to the other oaths [1-7]. He argued that as an Amritdhari (ie initiated) Sikh he had pledged an absolute oath of allegiance to Akal Purakh, the divine being in the Sikh tradition, and that the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen was incompatible with his religious oath [8].

The arguments

In his deposition, Mr Wirring set out his claim as follows:

“As a member of the Khalsa that collectively represents the Guru, it is not possible for me to swear an oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth or any other religious or political entity as doing so would forsake my vows and identity, and would constitute a desecration of the Khalsa and the Guru.

As an amritdhari Sikh, I have an unwavering devotion to both Guru Granth Sahib and the Khalsa, and live to serve their aims … As an amritdhari Sikh, I cannot swear allegiance or subservience to another sovereign. My sovereign is the Guru and Khalsa. I can no longer be an amritdhari Sikh if I swear an oath of allegiance to any entity aside from the Guru and Khalsa” [61].

He further deposed that should he be required to take the Oath of Allegiance, he might have to relocate to another province, away from his extended family and community, where an oath of allegiance to the Crown was either not required or an alternative was available [62]. He also argued that being required to take the Oath of Allegiance meant that he was not equal to others in Alberta because of his faith and that the requirement reinforced “the racial discrimination and violence he has experienced in his life because of his identity, his turban, his beard, and the colour of his skin” [63].

The Law Society of Alberta argued that Mr Wirring was mistaken as to the meaning of the Oath of Allegiance. It did not challenge his standing as a devout Sikh who had taken an oath to a divine spiritual figure and it contested his interpretation of the Oath of Allegiance as an oath to a sovereign or to a political figure or entity [82].

The judgment

B B Johnston J said that the Oath of Allegiance in this case had similar origins to the oaths in the Citizenship Act 1985 and the Constitution Act 1867 and had similarly evolved in meaning over time. The harmonization principle suggested that the Oath of Allegiance under the Legal Profession Act should be similarly interpreted: not as an oath to the Queen as a person but as a symbolic oath to constitutional democracy by those seeking to be barristers and solicitors [117]. In that sense, the Oath of Allegiance in the Legal Profession Act was even more profound than the oath to become a citizen: it represented not only a promise to abide by Canada’s form of government but also to maintain and uphold the rule of law and the Canadian constitutional system [118].

As to Mr Wirring’s claim that his religious freedom under sections 2(a) and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had been infringed, he found that the state had not objectively interfered with his religious beliefs or practices. [167]. To establish that his section 2(a) rights had been breached, he had to prove that the state had infringed his freedom of religion on a balance of probabilities, using facts that could be established objectively [168]. Because the Oath of Allegiance was symbolic, he was not required under the Legal Profession Act to pledge allegiance to a spiritual or secular entity other than Akal Purakh. Therefore, there had been no objective interference with his freedom of religion by the state [172]. Nor did the Oath of Allegiance requirement breach his right to equality under section 15 of the Charter [181]. Claim dismissed.

[With acknowledgements to Howard Friedman at Religion Clause.]

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Obligatory Oaths of Allegiance and freedom of religion: Wirring" in Law & Religion UK, 25 October 2023, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2023/10/25/obligatory-oaths-of-allegiance-and-freedom-of-religion-wirring/

5 thoughts on “Obligatory Oaths of Allegiance and freedom of religion: Wirring

  1. It is now clear to me that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego misunderstood what Nebuchadnezzar was saying in Daniel 3; and so have the people of God ever since.

    We can now see that bowing in front of a statue was not as they thought – putting someone in the place of the God in whom they believed and whom they served. They were quite entitled to maintain those beliefs and that commitment. That all belonged to their private lives rather than their public service.

    As Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah they still had the right to worship their God in the privacy of their own homes and to follow their vegetarian diet, and even to do so together. But when they were visible in their public role as Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego, stationed in the king’s court with authority over the affairs of Babylon, they were simply being required to publicly identify themselves as the servants of Nebuchadnezzar and to acknowledge that they were exercising his authority not their own when they were at work in the king’s court.

    It was not as if they were being asked to put Nebuchadnezzar in the place of their God. The statue was purely symbolic of his kingship and the fact that all authority was rooted in that understanding of statehood.

    There was no objective basis for thinking otherwise.

    Any failure to make that simple acknowledgement of the nature of the state could lead to serious misunderstanding by those whom they were privileged to serve and could undermine the operation of the rule of Nebuchadnezzar’s law and so required a severe sanction for failure to so acknowledge.

  2. If the burden of your comment is that you think that B B Johnston J got it wrong, for what it’s worth, so do I!

  3. A further reason for regarding this decision as wrong is that precisely the judge’s argument – that the oath was ‘symbolic’ in nature – was rejected by the ECtHR in Buscarini and others v. San Marino [GC] (1999) (https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/?i=001-58915) at [32]-[34]. And thus the Grand Chamber indeed went on to find a violation of Art 9.

    • Indeed. Of course, Wirring is a Canadian case, where the ECHR doesn’t apply. I’m surprised, however, at the judge’s conclusion that it didn’t breach the Canadian Charter of Rights – which has a strong family resemblance to the ECHR.

      • Yes, that was precisely my point. In terms of comparative law more generally, one can also refer to e.g. Commodore of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force v Laramore [2017] UKPC 13, which referred to both Strasbourg and Canadian jurisprudence in construing Art 22 of the Bahamas Constitution.

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