By Ron Csillag
TORONTO (RNS) A Canadian court has ruled that the father of a teenaged Jehovah’s Witness who died five years ago can proceed with legal action against the church.
In its ruling on Aug. 31, the Alberta Court of Appeal revived large portions of a $925,000 lawsuit filed by Lawrence Hughes of Calgary, who accuses Jehovah’s Witness members of contributing to the death of his 17-year-old daughter, Bethany.
The lawsuit, which a lower court dismissed as an attack on the Witnesses’ religious beliefs, alleges that lawyers for the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Canada counseled Bethany Hughes to refuse transfusions necessary to treat her leukemia.
The case made headlines and generated controversy over whether someone Bethany’s age could make informed decisions. Canada’s Charter of Rights allows those 18 and older to decide their own medical treatments, but ethicists argued that mature children should be allowed to decide unless their competence has been compromised.
Eventually, the Alberta government won temporary custody of Bethany and she was forcibly given 38 transfusions. She died Sept. 5, 2002, two months after doctors stopped the transfusions, which were determined to be ineffective.
Lawrence Hughes commenced his action two years ago after a court approved him as administrator of Bethany’s estate. But last year, a lower court ruled that his allegations were simply an attack on the church’s beliefs, and that litigation couldn’t proceed on the charge that a religious belief is wrong.
However, the appeals court noted the case will not put on trial the belief of Jehovah’s Witnesses that blood transfusions are forbidden by the Bible.
“The pleadings will not require any examination of the `truth’ of the (church’s) beliefs about blood transfusions,” the judges said.
Lawrence Hughes was shunned from the church after he rejected its teachings about blood transfusions and allowed Bethany to undergo the procedure.