On 29 March 2000, Alison received the following notification from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of New Zealand. The letter informed her that the assembly had been instructed by the Universal House of Justice to remove her name from the membership rolls of the New Zealand Baha’i community.
Dear Mrs Marshall,
The Universal House of Justice has advised us of its conclusion that, on the basis of an established pattern of statements by you and behaviour and attitude on your part over the past two or three years, you cannot properly be considered as meeting the requirements of membership in the Baha’i community. Accordingly, we have removed your name from our membership rolls and have informed the Baha’i institutions concerned.
NATIONAL SPIRITUAL ASSEMBLY
OF THE BAHA’IS OF NEW ZEALAND
Alison had no idea this was coming. She had never been contacted by a Baha’i institution about concerns over her statements, attitude or behaviour. She therefore wrote to the National Spiritual Assemby and asked it to explain why this decision was made. She also asked it to supply her with all the personal information it held on her. Under New Zealand’s Privacy Act 1993, an individual is entitled to ask any body that holds personal information on that individual to supply copies of it and to ask that body to correct information that is incorrect or misleading.
In response, the National Spiritual Assembly provided several documents, dating back to 1998, which indicated that the assembly’s interest in her went back several years. The National Spiritual Assembly’s letter did not contain an explanation for the disenrollment. Rather, it said that the decision was taken by the Universal House of Justice, and she was referred there for an explanation. The House of Justice later sent an e-mail dated 19 April 2000 to the National Spiritual Assembly giving its reasons for the disenrollment. Alison discovered the existence of this letter when believers on the Internet wrote to the House of Justice about her case. They were given copies of the letter. However, the letter was never sent to Alison by any Baha’i authority.
The documents supplied by the National Spiritual Assembly included one dated 28 March 2000, in which the assembly wrote to six local spiritual assemblies informing them of the disenrollment. The letter contained the following statement: “Efforts have been made to clear up her misunderstandings, but these have been unsuccessful, hence the Supreme Body’s decision.” Alison wrote to the assembly and, exercising her rights under the Privacy Act 1993, asked them to correct it and inform the six local spiritual assemblies concerned. The National Spiritual Assembly refused to correct the statement. Alison pointed out that the minutes of the National Spiritual Assembly meeting, held to decide how Alison would be informed of her disenrollment, record an apparent acknowledgement that Alison had not been counselled: “A question was raised about the fact that the National Spiritual Assembly had not yet implemented the instruction of the House of Justice to visit the Marshalls, and that the House of Justice must have received information from other sources.” The National Spiritual Assembly argued that the word “efforts”, “does not indicate that all such efforts necessarily involved direct approaches to you by representatives of the institutions on the specific matters in question.” The assembly offered to distribute a statement by Alison to the local assemblies, as it was required to do by law.
Alison made an official complaint, dated 4 October 2000, to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. The Privacy Commissioner is empowered under the Act to investigate complaints and is charged with trying to settle them through negotiation. The Office decided to investigate the matter in April 2002. In early April of that year, the Commissioner sent his conclusions that, in a situation where the agency is unwilling to change the disputed information, the law allows for the individual to attach a statement to all the copies of the information. The purpose of this is to allow the view of both parties to be held on the record. Given that the National Assembly was willing to attach a statement provided by Alison, it was therefore not in breach of the privacy law. He also argued that the issue of whether or not Alison was counselled was a subjective one and difficult for him to analyse. He therefore did not see it as part of his role to look into the matter. Alison therefore sent a statement to the National Spiritual Assembly to distribute to the six local assemblies for their files.
Statement pursuant to principle 7(3) of the Privacy Act 1993
29 May 2002
In accordance with a recommendation of the Privacy Commissioner and as agreed by the National Spiritual Assembly, I enclose this statement. It corrects a sentence included in a letter sent to your local assembly on 28 March 2000 about my disenrolment from the Baha’i community.
The relevant sentence is: “Efforts have been made to clear up her misunderstandings, but these have been unsuccessful, hence the supreme body’s decision.”
The sentence is incorrect. I was never contacted by any Baha’i institution about the fact that the institutions had concerns about my beliefs, nor was I ever counselled about my beliefs. That is, I was not contacted or counselled by the National Spiritual Assembly or the Dunedin Spiritual Assembly or any of their members, or by any counsellor (international or national), auxiliary board member or assistant.
(signed) Alison Marshall
Alison initiated proceedings in the New Zealand High Court for judicial review of the decision to disenrol her. On 10 March 2002, the National Spiritual Assembly was successful in having the case struck out. In essence, Alison was trying to get the court to “review” the decision of the National Spiritual Assembly, to determine whether it was legal under New Zealand law. Before a court can do that, it has to determine whether the decision is one the court can review. The court decided that it could not review the decision because it was made by the Universal House of Justice not the National Spiritual Assembly – and, of course, the House of Justice isn’t a party to the case because it is in Israel. The judge’s interpretation of the constitutions was that the National Spiritual Assembly must do as it’s told by the House of Justice.
The consequence of this is that if a decision is made by the National Spiritual Assembly, it would be reviewable by the court. The assembly tried to argue that all its decisions are spiritual in nature and therefore not reviewable. The judge did not accept this. He held that if an assembly decision affects a person’s rights – for example, relating to money, property or voting (such as in this case) – then the decision is reviewable. But he did accept that decisions about purely ecclesiastical matters would not be reviewable. The judge also rejected the National Spiritual Assembly’s argument that, because membership in the community is voluntary, assembly decisions would not be reviewable. In other words, although Baha’i community membership is voluntary, the National Spiritual Assembly still has a recognised legal duty to act in accordance with members’ rights.
The judge also rejected Alison’s request to have the decision reviewed because he thought Alison should have asked the National Spiritual Assembly or House of Justice to reconsider the decision first, before bringing the matter before the court. The judge argued that the constitution gave her the right to have the decision reviewed/appealed. Alison argued that the constitution only envisages the review/appeal of decisions of the National Spiritual Assembly, and such reconsiderations are made by the House of Justice. There is no stated remedy if the House of Justice itself makes the original decision.
The judge noted that he gave Alison the opportunity to have the National Spiritual Assembly/House of Justice reconsider the decision. However, she did not take him up on that because she was not seeking reinstatement. She wanted to prove that she was never counselled and that the National Spiritual Assembly had grossly misled the New Zealand Baha’i community in asserting that she had.
A chronology of events outlines in detail the events that led to Alison’s expulsion from the New Zealand Baha’i community. It is 20 pages long and includes documentary evidence of what happened. Most of the evidence comes from personal correspondence between Alison, or her husband Steve Marshall, on the one hand, and various administrative bodies on the other. Evidence also comes from National Spiritual Assembly minutes and National Spiritual Assembly correspondence with the House of Justice. At relevant points, the chronology indicates where the National Spiritual Assembly relies on an event as constituting part of Alison’s ‘counselling’. Some of these events took place years before Alison’s membership status was ever an issue.
The chronology reveals that the National Spiritual Assembly minutes began including ‘Alison and Steve reports’ as far back as December 1998. Alison and Steve never knew that the assembly was keeping an eye on them and recording their activities. In September 1999, the National Spiritual Assembly became very concerned after a local community meeting where some local Baha’is expressed concern about a House of Justice letter, dated April 7 1999. After this, the National Spiritual Assembly met to discuss the ‘Alison and Steve problem’ and sent a report to the House of Justice about them. This included four pages detailing things they’d done since 1996. The National Spiritual Assembly was particularly concerned about Steve, who was much more outspoken locally than Alison was. The minutes give an indication of how the National Spiritual Assembly viewed them and their activities. The House of Justice responded by asking the National Spiritual Assembly to do two things: hold another community meeting, and have a National Spiritual Assembly member meet with the Marshalls. The community meeting was held, but the National Spiritual Assembly had not arranged to meet with the Marshalls before the House of Justice instructed the National Spiritual Assembly to disenrol Alison.
In its submission to the court, the National Spiritual Assembly outlined what it argues is acceptable procedure when disenrolling a member:
9.3 In terms of decision-making required when Baha’i membership is at issue or when infringements of Baha’i law are of concern to the institutions, decisions are made based on Baha’i principles. The Baha’i administration is non-adversarial in nature and works in subtle ways. There can be no comparison with the terminology used in legal proceedings in the community at large. For example, Baha’i institutions do not lay any ‘charge’ against an individual believer, and there is no necessity for giving ‘direct notice’ to the individual. Similarly, the concept of a ‘case to be heard’ is foreign to the Baha’i administration. It is at the discretion of the Baha’i administrative body to act as it sees fit in full accordance with the Baha’i principles. … 9.4 Attempts by a National Spiritual Assembly to correct misunderstandings about the Faith by individual believers can be achieved in a variety of ways. The NSA does not employ the practice of formally approaching an individual before making a decision in every instance. There are many occasions when the deficiencies in understanding of individuals are addressed in a general, all-embracing way with the whole community (for instance, the presentation of community classes dealing with particular issues) rather than singling out individuals for specific attention.
This makes it clear that the Baha’i administration reserves the right to treat people exactly as it pleases and refuses to allow any checks on its powers.
In 2004, Alison wrote to the National Spiritual Assembly suggesting that she and the assembly agree to disagree and make peace. The Assembly responded that it “noted your comments”. Alison also wrote to the House of Justice explaining that she is a Baha’i and suggesting it consider reviewing the decision to disenrol her. The House of Justice asked the National Spiritual Assembly to convey to Alison its receipt of her letter. In 2020, Alison wrote again to the House of Justice suggesting that she and it be friends. As of March 2023, she had received no answer.
All documents relating to Alison’s expulsion, privacy complaint and court action are available for loan from the Hocken Library.