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RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS - Application of contractual principles to self-governing voluntary organizations - Membership - Loss of membership

Friday, May 21, 2021 @ 1:13 PM  

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Appeal by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral (Church) and the individual appellants from a judgment of the Ontario Court of Appeal that set aside a decision that granted them a summary judgment and dismissed the action brought by Aga and the other respondents who were expelled from the congregation after a dispute arose about a movement within the Church that some considered to be heretical. The respondents brought an action against the appellants, the Church and members of its senior leadership seeking a declaration their expulsion was null and void. The congregation was an unincorporated association. Its 1977 Constitution and Bylaw included provisions on the cancellation of membership. The motion judge found the respondents had failed to allege an underlying legal right as the statement of claim did not allege breach of contract. She determined neither the Constitution nor the Bylaw constituted a contract. The Court of Appeal found the Constitution and Bylaw were evidence of an underlying contract between the parties. It determined the issues of what the rules of expulsion were and whether or not they were followed were genuine issues that required a trial.

HELD: Appeal allowed. The order of the motion judge granting summary judgment and dismissing the action was restored. Courts had jurisdiction to intervene in decisions of voluntary associations only where a legal right was affected. The only viable candidate for a legal right that justified judicial intervention in the affairs of the congregation, as a voluntary association, was contract. Membership in a voluntary association was not automatically contractual, even when the association had a written constitution and bylaws. Membership was contractual only where the conditions for contract formation were met. The Court of Appeal erred in holding there was an underlying contract and therefore a genuine issue that required a trial. There was no evidence of an objective intention to enter into legal relations. Becoming a member of a religious voluntary association did not, without more, evince an objective intention to enter into a legal contract enforceable by the courts. Members of a religious voluntary association could undertake religious obligations without undertaking legal obligations. There was no contract between the parties, no jurisdiction and no genuine issue that required a trial.

Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral v. Aga, [2021] S.C.J. No. 22, Supreme Court of Canada, R. Wagner C.J. and R.S. Abella, M.J. Moldaver, A. Karakatsanis, S. Côté, R. Brown, M. Rowe, S.L. Martin and N. Kasirer JJ., May 21, 2021. Digest No. TLD-May172021011-SCC