Canada: disclosure of personal religious records: Vabuolas

In Vabuolas v British Columbia (Information and Privacy Commissioner) 2024 BCSC 27, two former members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses each sought disclosure from their former congregations of all records that included their personal information, relying on the terms of British Columbia’s Personal Information Protection Act SBC 2003. The elders of the congregations refused, arguing that disclosure of confidential religious notes would be contrary to their religious beliefs. The British Columbia Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner nevertheless ordered disclosure of the records over the objections of the elders [1-3].

The elders appealed: in brief, they sought a declaration that the Personal Information Protection Act unjustifiably infringed ss.2(a), (b) and (d) and s.8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it related to the collection, use or disclosure of personal information for religious purposes [37]. The relevant sections of the Charter read as follows:

“1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantee the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of conscience and religion; (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication…and (d) freedom of association.

3. Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.”

The Court noted that s.41 of the Personal Information Protection Act prohibited the Commissioner and the Commissioner’s delegates from disclosing information obtained in performing their duties or exercising their powers except in very limited circumstances [137]. Further, freedom of religion was not absolute, though it presented a particular challenge because of the broad scope of the Charter guarantee [138]. However, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner was competent to decide what, if anything, from the disputed records should be produced to the applicants, “having regard to Charter values and the congregation elders’ s. 2(a) Charter rights in particular”. And if the petitioners were dissatisfied with the Adjudicator’s decision after her review of the disputed records, they could seek judicial review [142].

In brief, Wilson J was

“not satisfied that disclosure of the disputed records by the congregational elders to the Commissioner for review for the purpose of determining whether disclosure to the applicants will be required would preclude the elders from continuing to follow their religious practices when weighing the rights of individuals to control over their personal information on the one hand and the religious freedom of the elders on the other. The Production Order represents a balancing of the competing interests, and I conclude that the infringement on the congregational elders’ religious freedoms that results from the Production Order is proportionate” [156].

Petition dismissed {175}.

[With acknowledgements to Howard Friedman]

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Canada: disclosure of personal religious records: Vabuolas" in Law & Religion UK, 12 January 2024,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *