Congrégation des témoins de Jéhovah de St-Jérôme-Lafontaine v. Lafontaine (Village), [2004] 2 S.C.R. 650, 2004 SCC 48, 2004 SCC 48 (2004)

Supreme Court of Canada

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Congrégation des témoins de Jéhovah de St-Jérôme-Lafontaine v. Lafontaine (Village), [2004] 2 S.C.R. 650, 2004 SCC 48, 2004 SCC 48 (2004)

Congrégation des témoins de Jéhovah de St-Jérôme-Lafontaine v. Lafontaine

(Village), [2004] 2 S.C.R. 650, 2004 SCC 48

Congrégation des témoins de Jéhovah de St-Jérôme-Lafontaine,

Roberto Biagioni and Denis Léveillé Appellants v.

Municipality of the village of Lafontaine, Harold Larente and Attorney General of Quebec Respondents and

Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Canada, Evangelical

Fellowship of Canada and Canadian Civil Liberties Association Interveners

Indexed as: Congrégation des témoins de Jéhovah de St-Jérôme-Lafontaine v. Lafontaine (Village)

Neutral citation: 2004 SCC 48.

File No.: 29507.

2004: January 19; 2004: June 30.

Present: McLachlin C.J. and Iacobucci, Major, Bastarache, Binnie, Arbour, LeBel, Deschamps and Fish JJ.

on appeal from the court of appeal for quebec

Municipal law - Procedural fairness - Refusal by municipality to amend zoning by-law to allow religious group to build place of worship on land it purchased - Whether municipality required to provide reasons for its decision.

Constitutional law - Charter of Rights - Freedom of religion - Whether municipality's decision not to amend its zoning by-law to allow religious group to build place of worship on land it purchased infringes freedom of religion - Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s. 2(a).

The Jehovah's Witnesses were looking for a suitable parcel of land on which to establish a place of worship in the respondent municipality. The zoning by-law allowed places of worship to be built in a regional community use zone. As they felt that no land was available in this zone, the Jehovah's Witnesses made a conditional offer to purchase a lot located in a residential zone and applied for an amendment to the zoning by-law. The amendment was refused on the ground that this would have resulted in an increase in the tax burden for ratepayers. The Jehovah's Witnesses purchased another lot in a commercial use zone and applied twice for a zoning change, but the municipality categorically refused to grant their applications, giving no reasons for its refusal. The Jehovah's Witnesses instituted a proceeding for mandamus, alleging that the municipality's refusal to amend its zoning by-law violated their freedom of religion under s. 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They also challenged the constitutionality of the provisions of the Act respecting land use planning and development relating to the process for approving amendments to zoning by-laws by way of referendum, contending that such a public consultation would violate their freedom of religion. The trial judge dismissed the application after finding that lots were still available in the only zone in which places of worship could be built. The Court of Appeal set aside this finding of fact, but the majority dismissed the appeal on the ground that the municipality was not responsible for the unavailability of land and was under no positive obligation to preserve freedom of religion.

Held (Major, Bastarache, LeBel and Deschamps JJ. dissenting): The appeal should be allowed.

Per McLachlin C.J. and Iacobucci, Binnie, Arbour and Fish JJ.: In weighing the merits of the Congregation's rezoning requests, the Municipality was discharging a duty delegated to it by the Legislature. The Municipality was bound to exercise the powers conferred upon it fairly, in good faith and with a view to the public interest. The Municipality did not fulfill its duty of procedural fairness in responding to the second and third rezoning applications brought by the Congregation because the Municipality gave no reasons for its denial.

When making an administrative decision affecting individual rights, privileges or interests, a public body like a municipality is bound by a duty of procedural fairness whose content varies according to five factors. In this case, a review of these factors indicates that the Municipality's duty of procedural fairness to the Congregation was heightened by the aggravated potential for abuse of discretionary statutory authority, the absence of an appeal provision, the expectations established by the Municipality's own conduct in responding to the Congregation's first rezoning application, and the importance of the decision to the Congregation, impacting as it did on the right of the Congregation to practice the religion of its choice. Little deference is due to the Municipality's decisions concerning the second and third applications for rezoning because there is no record to indicate that the Municipality has actually engaged its expertise in evaluating the applications. These factors suggest that the Municipality was required to carefully evaluate the Congregation's applications for a zoning variance and to give reas...

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