Hutterites in an agricultural colony near Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada, have broken with their tradition of separation from secular society by using Canadian courts to take action against a dissident member.

The case pits the Lakeside Colony against Daniel Hofer in a dispute that began three years ago. It was then that Hofer accused leaders of the nearby Crystal Spring Colony of “stealing” a hog-feeder design he had invented so they could recoup losses on the colony’s farming operations. Elders of the Hutterian Brethren Church, to which both colonies belong, excommunicated and expelled Hofer and several of his relatives.

But Hofer and his supporters refused to leave. After months of wrangling, the church, noted for its pacifistic views and its austere and communal lifestyle, took the unprecedented step of using a secular court to enforce its expulsion order.

The Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench upheld the church’s disciplinary procedure in an October 1 decision and ordered Hofer and his supporters to leave the colony by January 27. But on January 23, the Hofer group won the right to stay until May, when an appeal will be heard. The court says, however, that the dissidents must stay away from several colony buildings, including the dining hall.

In supporting the church’s arguments, Queen’s Bench Justice Patrick Ferg said Hutterite disciplinary authority is guaranteed by both Canada’s legal tradition and its constitution. Hofer argues that he has no intention of leaving either his church or his faith, either voluntarily or by force.

The Hutterites’ choice of court action instead of a Christian-based conciliatory procedure surprised political scientist John Redekop, who is both a vice-president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and a director of the Mennonite Central Committee (Canada) (MCC). Redekop said the MCC could have provided conciliation. The use of secular courts seemed to indicate a Hutterite trend toward “an apparent rigidity and an atypical preoccupation with material gain,” he said.

But University of Winnipeg religious studies head John Badertscher said the Hutterites had little choice but to go to court to gain the right to enforce their own discipline. “It is obvious they have started down a road they have never been down before,” he added.

By Lloyd Mackey in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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