Witness for the family
When the B.C. government seized three sextuplets last month to ensure they received blood transfusions, the lawyer for the Jehovah’s Witnesses parents responded sharply, labelling the province’s move a legal “hit and run.”
But then, Shane Brady is no dispassionate hired gun. As an in-house Witnesses lawyer and respected “Bethelite,” he is also a senior religious leader of the sect, lives in its headquarters complex in Georgetown and is known to members nationwide for vigorously defending the group’s controversial blood-transfusion ban. His devotion to the religion began when, as a young man, he worked as a baker at the head office.
For some, his intimate involvement in the issue is to be admired. The Canadian Bar Association handed Mr. Brady a young lawyers award in 2004, honouring his “dedication above and beyond the call of duty.” But others are less impressed, with an Alberta lawsuit accusing him of using his access as a lawyer and authority within the Church to influence clients to comply with the blood policy, a charge Mr. Brady vehemently denies.
– Four Dangers of the Jehovah’s Witness Organization
“To Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shane Brady is a hero. He is a very important religious figure,” says Lawrence Hughes, the Calgary man behind the suit and the father of a teenage girl with leukemia who tried to refuse a transfusion.
“The person coming from Bethel [Witnesses headquarters] is the spokesman of God,” said Michael Saunders, a former Bethelite and paralegal with the Church. “I know it sounds really, really ludicrous … [But] essentially, disobeying him is disobeying God.”
Mr. Hughes’ lawsuit concerning daughter Bethany’s eventual death is now before the Alberta Court of Appeal, after lower court judges quashed the case for partly technical reasons. None of his allegations has been proven in court.
Mr. Brady is not the first Witnesses lawyer to be honoured. Glen How, who fought government discrimination against the Church in the 1940s and after, was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2001.
Yet persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) in Canada is part of the past now. And some experts question whether the lawyers — with their single minded defence of the blood stand — offer impartial counsel to parents faced with an unenviable choice: risk their child’s death by spurning a blood transfusion or defy the Church and face painful expulsion.
“Legal advice, solid legal advice should not be encumbered by the values of the lawyer,” said Professor Chris Levy, associate dean of law at the University of Calgary. “Certainly, in my view, [Witnesses lawyers] come very close to crossing that line. Whether they cross it or not is a very difficult question.”
Mr. Brady rejects as “offensive” the criticism of his role, arguing that he is simply representing clients with strong religious beliefs, not imposing his own principles or acting for the Church. It is no different, he said, than a lawyer in the United States who cares deeply about the rights of African-Americans representing a group such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“It would be incredible to argue that if a lawyer happens to have a certain moral view … it would preclude them from taking on a certain case,” he said. “That would preclude judges who happen to be Jewish sitting on a case involving Jewish individuals. The whole notion is ridiculous.”
Earl Cherniak, a prominent Toronto civil-litigation lawyer and friend of Mr. How, said he has no problem with in-house JW lawyers taking on transfusion cases. But if they do, they must fulfill their professional duty to present clients with all their legal options, including accepting the transfusion.
Mr. Brady was in Vancouver recently, demanding a right to oppose the court order obtained unilaterally by B.C.’s Children and Family Development Ministry that allowed hospital staff to give transfusions to three babies against the parents’ wishes. Two of the sextuplets have died. The parties return to court on Feb. 23 to debate the matter.
Officially, Mr. Brady and such colleagues as David Gnam appear in court as members of the law firm W. Glen How and Associates. The citation for his bar association award said he did “pro bono” (free) work for a religious charity.
But the pair are identified on the Web site of Eugene Meehan, Q.C., a private-practice lawyer who worked with them on the Hughes case, as “in-house” counsel for that religion. Former employees of the Watchtower Society Canadian headquarters in Georgetown, called Bethel, have indicated in court documents that How and Associates is, in fact, the Jehovah’s Witnesses legal department.
Mr. Brady, like others who work at the head office northwest of Toronto, would have been chosen for his faith and loyalty, said Michael Saunders, a former JW employee who quit the religion in 1995. Also like others, he started with menial jobs — working as a baker and waiter — before the Watchtower Society sent him to law school in Toronto, said Mr. Saunders, who was a paralegal in the department for three years. Such Bethelites are considered religious authorities whose word is gospel to other members, he said. On speaking engagements at Kingdom Halls throughout the country, fathers would sometimes even offer up their daughters in marriage to him because of the prestige of his position, he said.
Mr. Brady, who is also an elder, and his wife live in the residences that form part of the headquarters, Mr. Saunders said. Frank Toth, another former Bethelite, said in an affidavit filed in the Hughes case that How and Associates “exists to do the society’s bidding,” with some lawyers particularly beholden to the organization because the group bankrolled their law degree.
In the Hughes case, Mr. Brady and Mr. Gnam represented Bethany and her mother, Arliss, who stuck by the blood ban while father Lawrence broke from the religion and fought to get Bethany a transfusion. Reports from social workers who sat as witnesses in Bethany’s hospital room — after courts ordered she should face no undue influence — indicated the lawyers visited and called the girl often, more than once hooking Bethany up by telephone with the family’s Kingdom Hall so she could listen to a service. In one case, someone at the service told the teen that everyone “supports her and loves her” in the battle against transfusion. Mr. Hughes said nurses saw Mr. Brady and Mr. Gnam praying with his daughter. His lawsuit charges that they and other Jehovah’s Witnesses officials pressured the girl and her mother into opposing a transfusion and seeking out an alternative treatment — involving arsenic — that helped lead to her premature death.
Mr. Brady says that suggestion is absurd.
“I’ve taken my barrister’s oath,” he said. “No judge has ever raised any concern about my representation of clients.”