At our weekly meeting, Pip Swartz discussed the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral v. Aga, 2021 SCC 22. In this case, 5 former members of a Toronto Catholic Church (‘the members’) sued their church (‘the church’) for expelling them without due process.
The members joined a church committee to examine heretical movements within their church. The committee delivered findings and recommendations to the Archdiocese, who is the head of the church. The Archdiocese rejected the findings. The members protested the Archdiocese’s decision and were told they would be expelled if they continued protesting. They continued protesting and were expelled.
The church asked for a summary judgment dismissal of this case. The church argued that the members have no right to due process, because they have no underlying legal right in which to ground their right to due process. The trial judge agreed with the church and dismissed the case.
Ontario Court of Appeal
The members appealed and the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the trial judge’s decision. The Court of Appeal found that the members had a contractual right in which to ground their right to due process.
Supreme Court of Canada
The Supreme Court of Canada agreed with the trial judge, and restored the trial judge’s decision.
The crux of this case was whether the members had entered into a legally binding contract with the church.
The members argued that because the church had a constitution and by-laws, a legally binding contract existed between them and the church. The members argued that the acts of signing church membership forms, paying dues to the church, and signing committee forms were evidence of this contract.
The church argued that because the members did not know about the church’s by-laws and constitution when they signed their membership forms, there was no contract.
The Supreme Court stated that in order to form a contract, both parties must show an objective intention to enter into a legally binding contract. Assessing the ‘objective intentions’ of the parties is fact dependent. For example, because of the nature of their relationship, agreements between spouses are generally assumed to be informal (not legally binding.)
Religious organizations are voluntary associations, and so agreements made in religious contexts are generally assumed to be informal. The Supreme Court stated that certain types of agreements within religious contexts are more likely to be contractually binding, such as agreements concerning property or employment.
The Court of Appeal had held that by joining the church, the members showed an intention to enter into a contract with the church and abide by their constitution and by-laws. The Supreme Court disagreed.
The Supreme Court stated that the act of joining a voluntary association, in and of itself, does not prove that the joiner objectively intended to enter into a contract. If it did, all agreements to join voluntary organizations with constitutions would become legally binding contracts. The Supreme Court stated that expanding the court’s jurisdiction over religious matters in this way would be undesirable, because it would decrease the autonomy of religious organizations.
This case is significant not only for the Supreme Court’s comments concerning the requirement for the finding of a legally binding agreement of an objective intention of the parties to be bound, but also the Court’s holding concerning the nature of rights and agreements within religious organizations and other voluntary associations. The Supreme Court indicates in this case a reluctance to interfere with the autonomy and decisions of religious organizations, which will have an impact on future litigation concerning such decisions.