Father of dead Jehovah's Witness girl can sue church: court

Calgary, Canada - The father of a teenaged Jehovah's Witness who refused blood transfusions can proceed with legal action on behalf of her estate against the church, the Alberta Court of Appeal has ruled.

Lawrence Hughes alleges that lawyers for The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Canada counselled his daughter Bethany to refuse transfusions necessary to treat her for leukemia.

But the court forced her to get them. She died Sept. 5, 2002, two months after stopping the transfusions after doctors determined they weren't helping.

Jehovah's Witnesses are not allowed to accept transfusions because it clashes with their interpretation of certain passages of the Bible forbidding the ingestion of blood.

But the appeal judges noted the case will not put on trial the belief of Jehovah's Witnesses that blood transfusions are wrong.

“The pleadings will not require any examination of the ‘truth' of the (church's) beliefs about blood transfusions,” the judges said.

A lower court judge ruled last year the allegations of misrepresentation was simply an attack on Jehovah's Witnesses beliefs.

Justice Patricia Rowbotham said litigation couldn't proceed on the basis that a religious belief is wrong.

The appeal court said the fundamental freedom of religion is “subject to those limitations that are justifiable in a free and democratic society.”

“It is not at all clear to what extent a religious adherent can convince another person to take actions for religious reasons that will cause him or her bodily harm or even death, even if the religious belief is sincerely held,” the justices wrote.

The appeal judges said those issues could only be resolved in a full trial.

Mr. Hughes was shunned from the church after he rejected its teachings about blood transfusions and agreed to allow Bethany to undergo transfusions during her chemotherapy treatments.

Her illness and death tore the family apart and renewed public debate over how to determine when a child should be able to choose medical care.

The Charter of Rights allows those 18 and older to decide, but medical ethics dictate that mature children should be allowed to decide unless their competence has been compromised.

Even though five pediatricians and psychiatrists found Bethany to be mature enough to choose her treatment, the courts ruled she was pressured by her religion and didn't have a free, informed will.

Eventually, the Alberta government won temporary custody of her and she was given 38 transfusions, although she tried to pull the medical tubes from her arms while bedridden at Alberta Children's Hospital.

Mr. Hughes commenced his wrongful death suit in 2004 after a court approved him as administrator of the estate. But that decision was struck down.

The appeal court ruled that Hughes should be restored as administrator.