Jehovah's Witness shunning court case shines spotlight on rare practice

A recent court case involving a Jehovah’s Witness real estate agent who was shunned by his church has brought the rarely used practice of religious shunning into the spotlight.

Hutterites, First Nations among groups that have used shunning and banishment

Shunning is a practice used by some religious groups. (Corey Perrine/Naples Daily News via Associated Press)

A recent court case involving a Jehovah's Witness real estate agent who was shunned by his church has brought the rarely used practice of religious shunning into the spotlight.

The appellate court sided with Randy Wall, a Calgary real estate agent and member of the congregation who faced expulsion after admitting to being drunk on two occasions and verbally attacking his wife.

Wall said his clients refused to do business with him following his expulsion because they were from the Jehovah's Witness congregation. For that reason, he argued his property and civil rights were affected by the disfellowship so the court had jurisdiction to hear the application.

Wall told the panel his behaviour stemmed from stress related to the expulsion of his 15-year-old daughter who he and his wife were required by the church to shun. The congregation had already kicked the teen out of the community and as a result, even though she was a dependent child living with her parents, the family was pressured to evict the girl from the home, leading to "much distress."

What is shunning and why is it used?

Shunning — known as disfellowship among Jehovah's Witness — is a punishment implemented by a panel of elders and calls on all other members of the congregation to reject the person both socially and emotionally, even if they are a family member. That means they shouldn't speak to them, greet them or socialize with them in any way.

"When someone in the group breaks the norms of the group, when they go against what the group regards as its ethical standards, they essentially excommunicate the member and they tell members of their own community that they shouldn't talk to them, they shouldn't sometimes be in the same room as they are, they shouldn't have anything to do with them and they say they are not welcome in the church or meeting place of that community," said Irving Hexham, a professor of religious studies at University of Calgary.

It lasts until the person who is identified as being the culprit either repents and comes back or asks for forgiveness and changes their ways.- Religious studies professor Irving Hexham

Jehovah's Witness aren't the only group to use shunning as a form of punishment, Hexham said, adding that it is rarely used. For example, Hutterites have practised shunning when members leave the colony and some First Nations have used banishment as form of punishment.

Similarly, the Catholic Church has used excommunication, one the most widely known forms of punishment used by a church, said Hexham. But it differs from shunning in that those affected are still accepted as members of the community but are not allowed to take communion.

Once someone is shunned, it doesn't always last forever, said Hexham.

"It lasts until the person who is identified as being the culprit either repents and comes back or asks for forgiveness and changes their ways," he said.

Professor calls court siding with realtor 'absurd'

Hexham said he was surprised the appeal court sided with Wall.

"I thought it was rather absurd," he said.

"I didn't expect them to decide in his favour. I thought they would say, 'this is a religious group and there are norms within that group.' We recognize the separation of church and state and you voluntarily join the religious group and you voluntarily leave. Also, if they want to exclude you, that's their decision. You can't force people to become members of a religion. It's a private group."

Sheryl Waldner while living on a Hutterite colony in Manitoba, left, and in 2006, after she was shunned. (Sheryl Waldner)

Shunning left family 'an emotional mess'

Sheryl Waldner has experienced shunning, more than once.

A former member of a Hutterite colony in Manitoba, Waldner left the group in 2006 along with several of her siblings, wanting to see more of the world.

For that, she is now shunned. Her own father had been shunned three years earlier after he became a Christian, she says.

"We were all an emotional mess," she said.

"We were full of fear because of the way we grew up… and because we didn't know how to live on the outside, or who we are as an individual."

What made leaving even tougher, said Waldner, was the fact she had no resources and couldn't speak English, as members of the colony spoke a unique form of German.

"We didn't have much of anything but people on the outside who were not ex-Hutterites, they invited us into their home. It was a small ministry in North Dakota," she said.

"They knew we were desperate, they knew we were searching for something different."