Saskatchewan. woman exempted from union membership because of her religious beliefs, according to the labor commission

A Saskatchewan woman was exempted from union membership in her workplace because of her religious beliefs.

In a decision released late last month, the Saskatchewan Labor Relations Board granted the government employee’s request. She argued that her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness prohibited her from joining political organizations. The woman, who represented herself at the hearing, said that includes unions.

“…She believes that she should have only one loyalty and that is to the kingdom of God,” the Sept. 29 ruling states.

The woman acknowledged that not all Jehovah’s Witness adherents hold this view of unions and that no specific religious teaching prohibits union membership. She said it was her interpretation of her faith.

“She recognizes that many governments and unions are trying to improve the lives of people, but there are limits to what earthly governments and political entities can actually accomplish. The kingdom of God is a solution to all problems on earth and will create the conditions for the benefit of all. It will supersede all other earthly governments and remove any need for ‘man-made’ institutions,” the decision reads.

It is unclear whether the woman was asked if she considered her employer, the Saskatchewan government, to be a political organization as well.

Even though the woman is now exempt from paying union dues, she will still receive full benefits under all working conditions negotiated by the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union (SGEU).

“It’s very unusual. Many employment lawyers would probably never encounter this kind of problem in their practice,” said Kevin Banks, a law professor at Queen’s University.

He said cases like this go back decades, but there were probably only a handful across the country during that time.

Queen’s University law professor Kevin Banks said it’s rare for people to cite religious beliefs as reasons for being exempt from union membership. A Saskatchewan woman obtained this exemption last month. (submitted by Kevin Banks)

Banks said the board made it clear that this was an exceptional circumstance. He said the woman had to prove a deep, long-held belief, so he doesn’t think it will lead to an abuse of the rules.

“The Board has exercised a certain depth and care in coming to the conclusion that these [beliefs] were held sincerely,” Banks said.

York University law professor Valerio De Stefano agreed that special attention had been given to the complex case.

“On the one hand, the need not to call into question the union security clauses [is] cornerstone of our labor legislation. On the other hand, the protection of deeply and manifestly held religious beliefs,” De Stefano said in an emailed statement.

“Although it is doubtful whether trade unions can be considered ‘political entities’ in our system, the Council has decided not to engage in a theological examination of the merits of these beliefs and has decided to accept the request exclusion of the worker. At the same time, it underlined the exceptional nature of this exclusion from our model of social relations.

An SGEU official said he had no comment on the matter.

Ruth R. Culp