Let me highlight just one
of the cases we’re currently working on…
In April, the EFC filed its arguments for intervener status in an application for leave to appeal before the Supreme Court of Canada. At issue is whether courts should be permitted to judicially review disputes between a church’s leadership and its members on matters of theology and church discipline.
The case began when five members of a congregation in Toronto were expelled from their church. These former members had served on a committee that was tasked with investigating allegations of heresy within the church. Disputes arose when the church administration rejected the committee’s conclusions and the members were expelled.
These former members took the church to court, claiming the church had failed to follow its own internal procedures in the expulsion process.
In the court of first instance, the judge decided the case was not “justiciable” – that is, there was no civil right or contract that would allow the court to interfere in this matter. However, on appeal, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that a contract did
exist between the church and the expelled members. The Court found that the former members’ commitment to support the church through monthly tithes created a legally binding, contractual relationship, and that the church’s written bylaws and constitution constitute the terms of the contract.
This basically implies that when a church communicates an expectation for its members to tithe, the church has engaged in contract talks; that when church members donate tithes and offerings, they are fulfilling contractual obligations; and that a church’s governing documents confer contractual rights that are justiciable by civil courts.
This decision clearly contradicts the 2018 Supreme Court ruling on a similar case (in which the EFC intervened), which concluded that the courts do not
have jurisdiction over the internal disputes of private voluntary associations like churches. The Court stated that “no civil or property right is formally granted by virtue of membership (in a religious organization),” and that the Court should not “become the arbiter of religious dogma.” In other words, the Supreme Court upheld the principle that judges have no business second-guessing the internal decisions made by religious organizations, including decisions regarding discipline and membership, through judicial review.
These policies and decisions are rooted in doctrine and the interpretation of Scripture. The Supreme Court understood that adjudicating in these matters could involve making determinations, and thereby taking sides, in disputes about Scripture and theology.
Civil courts should not have the power to rule on whether a church’s pastor or other church leader(s) made the right decision in handling internal disputes or whether the church followed its bylaws or ecclesiastical policies properly. This preserves the autonomy of religious communities as well as state neutrality in theological matters.
The Ontario Court of Appeal decision in this current case is now being appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. The EFC is seeking intervener status because the implications of this case will reach far beyond this particular local church. Inviting a branch of the state, the courts, to weigh in on matters of theology and doctrine will have negative consequences for all peoples of faith in Canada. Churches, denominations and other religious bodies could face higher risks of being taken to court by disgruntled members over internal church matters.
Court interventions consumes a lot of the EFC’s resources. That’s why the EFC only decides to intervene after much consideration. But when the stakes are high and the issues are of major concern to evangelical Christians, we can’t not
get involved. We need to build up our Legal Fund now!
The power to effect change is in your hands. Will you donate to the EFC’s Legal Fund today