The Jurisdiction of Courts to Intervene in Decisions of Voluntary Associations: Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St Mary Cathedral v Aga

  • June 17, 2021
  • Rachel Weiner

On May 21, 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada released its unanimous decision in Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St Mary Cathedral v Aga, 2021 SCC 22 regarding the intervention of courts in decisions of voluntary religious associations. It confirmed that a legal right is required for a court to intervene in a decision of a voluntary association, and that whether such a legal right is to be determined on a case-by-case basis. [1] While a written constitution and bylaws may constitute a contract that gives rise to this legal right, the court must determine this on a case-by-case basis using general principles of contract law, which require an objective intention to enter into legal relations.[2]

Facts of the Case

The appeal was brought by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St Mary’s Cathedral (Church Corporation) as well as individual appellants from leadership of the church.[3] The respondents to the appeal are former members of the congregation, an unincorporated association.[4] The respondents were expelled from church and brought a legal action against the appellants on a variety of grounds, including that the Church did not follow its own procedures, regulations, bylaws and constitution.[5] They relied on a Constitution and a Bylaw which address cancellation of membership and excommunication to ground their case.[6]

Decisions of the Ontario Superior Court and Ontario Court of Appeal

The appellants brought a summary judgment motion.[7] Justice Nishikawa granted this motion at first instance, finding that there was no breach of a contractual right that could ground the action.[8] However, the Court of Appeal held there was evidence of an underlying contract: applications for membership based on membership forms, monthly payments comprising consideration, and approval of those applications was a mutual agreement to be governed by the rules of the congregation.[9] The Court of Appeal concluded that there was a genuine issue requiring a trial regarding what the rules of expulsion were and whether they were followed.[10]