In Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral v. Aga, 2021 SCC 22 (“Aga”), the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) heard an appeal from the Ontario Court of Appeal on certain legal issues pertaining to religious voluntary associations, particularly, whether membership in a religious voluntary association and the existence of a constitution and bylaws constitutes a contract between the voluntary association and their membership.
In this case, five church members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral (the “Church”) were expelled from the Church as a result of an ongoing theological dispute and brought an action against the Church claiming that their expulsion is null and void and that it violated the principles of natural justice.
Trial and Appeal Decisions:
On the summary judgment motion, the motion judge determined that the expelled members had no underlying legal right to membership and dismissed the action on the basis that the court had no jurisdiction to review the expulsion decision.
On appeal, the Ontario Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and determined that the expelled members had an underlying legal right to membership and found that the constitution and bylaws of the Church and members’ monetary contributions were enough to find that a contract existed between the Church and the members.
Supreme Court of Canada Decision:
The SCC overturned the Ontario Court of Appeal decision and found that there was no objective intention to enter into legal relations between the Church and the expelled members and, therefore, no contract was created between the expelled members and the Church. The SCC clarified that simply agreeing to be bound by rules or religious obligations does not necessarily amount to either of the parties (in this case, the Church and the membership) undertaking legal obligations. As a result, the SCC concluded that the courts do not have jurisdiction to intervene in the Church’s dispute since there was no underlying legal right at issue.
In this decision the SCC confirms that simply becoming a member of a voluntary association and agreeing to be bound by certain rules does not necessarily provide the courts with jurisdiction to intervene in the relationship between the members and the voluntary association. Instead, there must be an objective intention to create legal relations for the courts to be able to intervene in such a dispute. In other words, the subjective intentions of the parties is not determinative of whether they create legal relations, but the circumstances and the actions have to be such that any third party viewing the situation objectively would conclude there was an intention to create legal relations. In their decision the SCC reaffirmed some general principles for determining whether there is an objective intention to create legal relations (see Aga, paras 37-42):
- The general test to determine whether there was an objective intention to create legal relations is “whether a reasonable person would conclude that [the parties] intended to be bound” and the surrounding circumstances may provide helpful context for determining this;
- The nature of the relationship (for example, whether it is family or friends or arm’s length third parties) between the parties and the parties’ conduct are a relevant consideration;
- Where property or employment is at issue, an intention to create legal relations is more likely to exist; and
- An objective intention to create legal relations may be more difficult to show in the religious
context due to the voluntary nature of association.
Further, the SCC cautions courts from being quick to characterize religious commitments and obligations as legally binding and reaffirms the principle that membership in a voluntary association is not automatically contractual. The following paragraphs from the SCC’s decision provide a helpful summary of how courts are to approach to voluntary associations:
“[Voluntary] associations are vehicles to pursue shared goals. To this end, many such associations will have rules, sometimes even a constitution, bylaws and a ‘governing’ body to adopt and apply the rules. These are practical measures by which to pursue shared goals. But, they do not in and of themselves give rise to contractual relations among the individuals who join. The members of the local minor hockey league, or a group formed to oppose development of green spaces, or a bible study group, for example, do not enter into enforceable legal obligations just because they have joined a group with rules that members are expected to follow.
The practical wisdom embodied in the common law is that much of what we agree to in our day-to-day lives does not result in a contract. Where there is no contract, or other obligation known to law, there is no justiciable interest and no cause of action.” (Aga, paras 23-24)
Overall, this case reaffirms the distinction between legal obligations and voluntary commitments and obligations in religious (or other types of) voluntary associations, and provides helpful clarity for determining whether a court can intervene to resolve disputes in this context.
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