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If your religious leaders kept secret files on you, should you be allowed to have access to them once you leave the faith? That question is at the center of a controversial ruling last week involving the Jehovah’s Witnesses in British Columbia, and the story is far from over.

The case involves two former members: Gabriel-Liberty Wall and Gregory Westgarde. Wall had been a member of the Grand Forks congregation since 2014, having been baptized into the faith in 2012. He formally left the Witnesses in 2017. John Vabuolas was one of his elders. Westgarde was a member of the Coldstream congregation until 2009, when he left. Paul Sidhu was one of his elders. The names aren’t particularly relevant as much as their situation.

A couple of years ago, both men requested access to anything the Witnesses had on file about them, and they cited the province’s Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA), which gives individuals access to that kind of data. The Witnesses, in response, filed a civil lawsuit against the government saying they ought to be exempt from the law and that the law as written was unconstitutional.

In short, they argued that any data they had on members, past or present, was “used only to the extent necessary to provide spiritual support… as well as to protect the moral and spiritual cleanness of congregations.” That included the opinions of the elders about their members and documentation of possible sins committed by the members in question.

It’s no wonder that the former members wanted access to those files. Much like in a tough breakup, your ex knows your secrets. You want to make sure they can never use those against you. At the very least, you need to know what they know about you. And in this case, PIPA gave the ex-JWs the right to request it.

The Witnesses, however, argued that such data must remain in their possession—and away from prying eyes—in case those former members ever wanted to rejoin the religion. This was a religious secret, no different from whatever a Catholic priest might hear in a confessional booth, and the government had no right to force them to give up their notes.

That’s not exactly a fair analogy, though, because it’s not like JW elders keep those secrets to themselves. As one of the ex-JWs later explained, “Confidential information is shared between multiple elders, circuit overseers and the branch office where any number of individuals could have access to this personal information.” (For example, if you moved to a different city, elders in your old Kingdom Hall could share your private information with your new elders.) But if the data was just floating around like that, how come the people whom the information came from can’t see it?

Last September, a B.C. Supreme Court judge said the lawsuit would be on hold until the Privacy Commissioner could weigh in on the matter… and last week, that Commissioner finally weighed in. Director of Adjudication Elizabeth Barker wrote in a lengthy ruling that the Jehovah’s Witnesses hadn’t shown the law was unconstitutional, and they will have to give her the data on the two men so she can decide if there’s anything too sensitive for their eyes.

Once I have the opportunity to review the records, I will be able to decide what personal information in them, if any, the applicants are entitled to access under PIPA. That decision will include considering application of the provisions of s. 23, including those that apply to protect the personal information of third parties such as the elders.

What about the argument that data collected by religious groups ought to be exempt from PIPA? Barker wasn’t buying it.

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 [the Jehovah’s Witnesses] suggest would completely undermine and defeat that purpose.

Barker demanded all information be given to her by August 3, after which she’ll be able to make a final decision.

The BC Humanist Association is calling this ruling a “victory for secularism and the rights of apostates and those who leave religious communities.” Executive Director Ian Bushfield said this in a statement:

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.

The bottom line here is that religious organizations in B.C. don’t have some special right to keep tabs on you but never letting you have access to it. Their private thoughts about members shouldn’t be exempt from privacy laws that give people control of their own information, especially when those thoughts may be shared with plenty of other people.

If the information is eventually given to the former members, it could also reveal what sorts of discussions JW leaders have had about members when they believe they’re deliberating in secret. As one former Witness told me, this information could tell people if their character was maligned: “Were they slandered or misrepresented amongst their small insular community in some way?” To put that another way, did the elders talk shit about you with other Witnesses based on something private you told them? Knowing that answer could lead former members to demand that any such information be destroyed once they leave the organization.

(This is all assuming the elders haven’t destroyed any truly damning information already. It’s not unusual, one Witness told me, when data “magically disappears.”)

Like I said, this case is far from over. Whatever gets decided here won’t necessarily apply everywhere else. But a small victory would still be a victory.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.