Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Canadian Supreme Court Refuses To Invalidate Archbishop's Expulsion of Church Members

In Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral v. Aga, (Sup Ct Canada, May 21, 2021), the Supreme Court of Canada refused to invalidate an Archbishop's expulsion of five church members. The expelled members had been critical of the Archbishop's refusal to accept a recommendation of a committee investigating a movement which some saw as heretical. The members argued that their expulsions violated principles of natural justice because they had no opportunity to hear or contest the charges against them. The court held, however, that "there is no free‑standing right to procedural fairness with respect to decisions taken by voluntary associations." The court explained its decision:

Jurisdiction to intervene in the affairs of a voluntary association depends on the existence of a legal right which the court is asked to vindicate. Here, the only viable candidate for a legal right justifying judicial intervention is contract. The finding of a contract between members of a voluntary association does not automatically follow from the existence of a written constitution and bylaws. Voluntary associations with constitutions and bylaws may be constituted by contract, but this is a determination that must be made on the basis of general contract principles, and objective intention to enter into legal relations is required. In this case, evidence of an objective intention to enter into legal relations is missing. As such, there is no contract, there is no jurisdiction, and there is no genuine issue requiring a trial.

Canadian law however does permit courts to intervene in religious decisions more readily than America courts are willing to do, as illustrated by this summary by the Court:

[W]hile purely theological issues are not justiciable ..., where a legal right is at issue, courts may need to consider questions that have a religious aspect in vindicating the legal right.... For example, courts adjudicating disputes over church property may need to consider adherence to the church’s internal rules, even where those rules are meant to give effect to religious commitments.  

Law Times reports on the decision.