Canadian Courts Block Discrimination
By “Awake!” correspondent in Canada
NOBODY likes to be discriminated against. Many laws are on the books to stop such practice. Even so, persons in local authority from time to time still attempt to thwart the application of such anti-discrimination laws. Such was the case when a religious minority in British Columbia, Canada, recently set out to build a lovely but modest place for meetings.
They had obtained an eight-acre piece of land in a rural part of the pretty municipality of Surrey, near Vancouver. The proposed building was to seat 1,800 people, and would be used as an assembly hall for special combined meetings of several congregational groups.
Would local zoning regulations allow the building of such a place of worship? They were delighted to learn that a church or assembly hall could be built anywhere in the district. And on January 3, 1974, the chief building inspector wrote them, listing the documents required to qualify for a building permit.
Eagerly they proceeded with architectural and engineering plans. These were ready by April, at a cost of over $34,000. The plans were filed immediately and a building permit requested. But eagerness quickly turned to chagrin. The permit was not granted, and the building inspector requested no further plans. Why the delay?
A New Zoning Law?
The answer came in May, when the Council for the District of Surrey ordered the permit delayed “pending possible amendment to the bylaw.’’ The proposed amending by-law #4294 named a new zone called “P-3” (Public Use #3), and sought to require that churches and assembly halls be built only in it.
But there was no such zone anywhere! It was an imaginary zone with no land in it! If churches could be built only in Zone P-3, the by-law would prohibit such buildings entirely! Why would a municipal council want to do such a thing?
The answer came at public hearings held on June 10 and 24, 1974. It soon became apparent that certain neighbors in the area were opposed to the assembly hall. They charged that there would be traffic, parking and septic problems. Yet the plans submitted had adequately covered these very problems and complied with all the regulations.
Municipal planner L. Kleyn tried to rationalize the proposed restriction by saying that a church property, being larger than a single-family residential property, made it inconvenient for developers to locate roads. Yet he maintained that hospitals, schools, and other public or semipublic buildings could still be allowed without restriction.
But would not hospitals or schools impede a new roadway as much as a church? Why stop churches while allowing other large public buildings? The real issue behind these inconsistencies became clear during part of the discussion when the city manager reportedly said: ‘A neighborhood should not have to put up with a religion it does not want.’
The mayor additionally contended that all neighbors should be notified of any proposed church building and have an open hearing to oppose it. But prominent zoning expert Richard Babcock, in his book The Zoning Game, calls such hearings “government by screaming” and “trial by neighbourism.” They would open the door to discriminate church buildings of minorities out of existence!
Fully aware of this threat, a number of other church groups in addition to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the victims in this instance, attended the public meetings. All recognized the menace to religious liberty lurking behind the bland words of the municipal officials.
The minister of the North Surrey Gospel Chapel reportedly said that the proposed neighborhood hearings opened the way to ‘decisions based on religious prejudice where bigoted people could influence what is done.’ A speaker for the Roman Catholic Knights of Columbus also protested the proposed ‘mischief by law,’ saying: ‘We fought two world wars to protect our civil liberty and religious freedom.’
But to no avail. Bylaw #4294 was adopted on July 11, 1974. Thereafter the building inspector wrote: “Because of the recent adoption of the P-3 zone . . . we are therefore unable to issue the building permit.”
Thus Jehovah’s Witnesses had been led by municipal officials to spend uselessly over $34,000 plus untold time and energy. Though a search was made for an alternate building site, nothing seemed available. What else could be done? After consultation with counsel, a decision was reached—legal action.
About six months later the case finally came up for argument before Mr. Justice Ruttan, a senior judge of the Supreme Court of British Columbia. A day and a half was devoted to exhaustive argument. During the discussion Justice Ruttan is said to have remarked: ‘The public hearing has the effect of allowing the neighbours to decide whether or not a church shall go up. This opens the door to inconsistency and discrimination on the ground that they “don’t like that church or those people.”’
On February 11, 1975, his fourteen-page decision was given. Justice Ruttan wrote concerning the new by-law:
“It is mis-described as a ‘zoning’ by-law because it does not create any zone . . . to create a zone classification without a specified zone leads inevitably to individual discrimination and must render the purported zoning by-law meaningless and void as ultra vires [beyond the Surrey Council’s legal authority].”
He then ordered the District of Surrey to issue a building permit for an assembly hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But the Surrey Council was not to be so easily turned from its discriminatory resolve. They appealed to the British Columbia Court of Appeal. More delay! Counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses made a motion requesting an immediate hearing in the light of escalating building costs. The court ordered the appeal to be scheduled for the first dates that became available.
Hence, on June 5, 1975, legal counsel for the District of Surrey began his argument before three judges of the British Columbia Court of Appeal. During the argument, Chief Justice Farris reportedly pointed out to the lawyer that ‘seventy-nine churches have been built in the municipality without any trouble. All of a sudden you can’t build any churches! These applicants have met all the standards, then [Surrey] Council says arbitrarily, “No, you can’t build!” This is a very arbitrary decision. . . . The right to build a church depends on the whim of the Council.’
Justice Seaton added: ‘You have put yourself on the horns of a dilemma. You needed a ladder to climb up there; now you want us to help get you down.’
As the day drew to a close, there was time for the other side to speak briefly on only one point, reserving the main argument for the next morning. But the judges did not even bother to call for it! Instead, the next morning they gave a unanimous judgment in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses, delivering an oral decision right off the bench with no delay. Mr. Justice Seaton said:
“There was no land in the P-3 zone when Council said, or purported to say, ‘Churches can only go in P-3 zones.’ I think we have to look at the Municipal Act to see whether it authorizes the municipality to prohibit the building of churches, because that is what this by-law purports to do.
“Our section 702(1)(b) . . . does not authorize the municipality to prohibit the building of churches in the municipality.”
Could they now build? By court order, the officials of Surrey were “commanded to issue a building permit . . . in accordance with the application for which detailed plans were filed.” A telegram was then sent to the Surrey Municipal Office advising that Jehovah’s Witnesses would be coming on Tuesday, June 10, to get the building permit mandated by the court order. But this was not to be.
Still Another Obstacle
The council for the District of Surrey met again on Monday, June 9, and openly discussed what steps they could take to block the assembly hall in view of the court order. An observer noted the following remarks:
Alderman Millar: Is there any other way we can stop this? . . . They are going in there with a facility for 1,800 people on a septic field.’
Manager Closkey: ‘Our Health Inspector has already approved that; I don’t think we can do anything about that.’
Mayor Vander Zalm: ‘I think we could set up a Board of Health.’
The mayor thus suggested that, as a self-appointed “Board of Health,” the council could still thwart the building program. But not all members agreed:
Alderman Beale: ‘I think we are clutching at straws. I would not want to support a vindictive action of this nature.’
Alderman O’Brien-Bell: ‘We are going to make ourselves look silly . . . we are clutching at straws. We had our own appointed competent health inspector do the test and gave a ruling on it. He did not find anything wrong with it then.’
But others persisted:
Mayor: ‘I think we should form council into a Board of Health. We could have a meeting two weeks from tonight to consider this.’
Manager Closkey: ‘In this telegram requesting the permit, their counsel mentions that if we do not issue the permit we will be in contempt of court.’
Alderman McKitka: ‘What do we get? Two days in jail?’
Contempt of court, refusal to obey a court order, is a serious matter punishable by fine or imprisonment. On June 11 the court order was served on the building inspector. He did hand over a building permit—but it was not according to plans approved by the Supreme Court. Instead the permit was “subject to review and approval of the sewage disposal system by the Local Board of Health.”
But the “Local Board of Health” was just another title taken on by certain obviously prejudiced members of the Municipal Council of Surrey! So, on June 13 legal counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses notified Surrey council that the condition it had attached to the permit was illegal and left the municipality in contempt of court. At the same time, bulldozers moved onto the site and began to prepare the land for construction.
Four days later a contempt citation was served on the mayor and councillors of Surrey, except for the two who voted against setting up a “Board of Health.” The motion for contempt came before Mr. Justice Anderson on June 20, 1975.
After persistently probing the evasive arguments of the municipal lawyer, Justice Anderson reportedly observed that ‘there is no or little evidence that there was any necessity to pass the resolution passed by Council on Monday, June 9th, 1975, except for the purpose of preventing the building from being constructed.’ Justice Anderson therefore concluded:
“It goes without saying that the members of Council should not do anything directly or indirectly which would have the effect of harassing or molesting the Applicants or prevent them from proceeding in a lawful way with the construction of their building. I am sure that with the good will and common sense of all concerned that all matters in issue can be resolved for the mutual benefit of the applicants and the District of Surrey. The application is adjourned sine die [without date].”
By adjourning the motion in this way, the proceeding remained before him. If there should be any “harassing or molesting,” the matter could be readily revived before the same judge. Now could they build?
The answer came at the next council meeting, June 23. The Columbian newspaper reported:
“Mayor Bill Vander Zalm urged council to ‘drop the whole thing’ and allow Jehovah’s Witnesses to work out any problems with the Boundary Board of Health.
“Council then voted to delete the condition and to bow out of the picture.”
What happened to the Surrey “Board of Health”?
“Earlier, council convened as a board of health, as scheduled, and adjourned immediately without discussion.
“It was the shortest board of health meeting on record.”
The District of Surrey Council did “drop the whole thing” and did “bow out of the picture.” Jehovah’s Witnesses much appreciated the ensuing fine cooperation from employees and inspectors of the Building Department during construction. After such long restraint, the volunteer workers began building with a burst of enthusiasm, so that the building was completed within about seven months!
Observing the rapid progress, three neighbors came over and said: “We have been watching you and are so impressed with what we have seen that we just had to come for a closer look.” Another nearby resident came to offer his assistance freely and worked willingly and hard. He is now himself enjoying free assistance with his own home Bible study. Still another person expressed appreciation for the legal efforts and spontaneously contributed a considerable sum toward the expenses.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Vancouver area take real pleasure in welcoming all persons to their lovely new assembly hall. When the dedication of this fine structure was held on March 13 of this year, they were delighted to have 2,480 people from the Vancouver area present to share their joy. They know it will prove to be an asset to the community, but, most important, it is a center for worship of the true God, Jehovah.
[Picture on page 17]
Artist’s sketch of Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Surrey, British Columbia
[Picture on page 18]
Witnesses have right to church
THE PROVINCE June 7, 1975
Appeal favors Witnesses in bid for Surrey hall
THE VANCOUVER SUN, June 7, 1975
[Picture on page 18]
THE COLUMBIAN, June 12, 1975
Surrey openly defying decision on Witnesses
‘Strings attached’ to Witnesses’ permit
THE PROVINCE, JUNE 12, 1975
[Picture on page 19]
Surrey Council Steps aside for Witnesses’ Plans
THE COLUMBIAN, June 24, 1975