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Religion - Court Jurisdiction Over

. Bethel Restoration Ministries v. Noble

In Bethel Restoration Ministries v. Noble (Ont CA, 2024) the Ontario Court of Appeal considered the court's jurisdiction over 'voluntary religious organizations', here in an appeal against an order enforcing a legal settlement between two church factions:
(1) The Motion Judge Was Not Required to Decline Jurisdiction

[5] As the Supreme Court of Canada made clear in Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral v. Aga, 2021 SCC 22, [2021] 1 S.C.R. 868, at paras. 27-31, the court’s jurisdiction to intervene in the affairs of a voluntary religious organization depends on the existence of a legally cognizable civil right which is affected and which the court is asked to enforce.

[6] A legally cognizable civil right will not be engaged in every dispute involving a religious organization. The norms of behaviour of voluntary religious organizations concerning matters of dogma or canon are inherently non-justiciable: Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Judicial Committee) v. Wall, 2018 SCC 26, [2018] 1 S.C.R. 750, at para. 36. Nor will a church’s own rules, constitution or by-laws amount to an enforceable contract among its members if, viewed objectively, an intention to create legal relations is missing: Ethiopian Orthodox, at para. 3.

[7] But a religious organization may “bring [itself] within the civil law’s authority”: Birhane v. Medhanie Alem Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, 2023 ONCA 815, at para 30. One way to do so is by expressly making an agreement with an intention to create legal relations, including one concerning property. Contractual rights and property rights ground jurisdiction in the court: Ethiopian Orthodox, at paras. 27-29.

[8] The appellants’ argument that the dispute that first gave rise to the litigation was one that raised issues that fell outside the Superior Court’s jurisdiction, such as who should serve as the church’s Senior Pastor, is unavailing. The parties decided to resolve the underlying dispute by making a contract with financial terms and provisions relating to property.

[9] The Minutes do not deal with or require consideration of matters of dogma, canon or church doctrine and thus do not create the risk that a court will misunderstand their content. They do not invite a court to stray into non-justiciable matters. Rather, by agreeing to the Minutes’ financial and property-related terms, the appellants, including Bethel, “have brought themselves within the civil law’s authority”: Birhane, at paras. 29-30. The Minutes are a contract entered into with the objective hallmarks of an intention to create legal relations. The Minutes were signed to resolve litigation, after a mediation with a retired judge, and with the advice of legal counsel. The Minutes thus gave rise to legally cognizable civil rights – rights in property and contract – which ground jurisdiction in the court: Ethiopian Orthodox, at paras. 27-29.

[10] In our view, there is no basis to interfere with the motion judge’s decision that he had jurisdiction to enforce the Minutes by making an order for the performance of their financial terms and the term permitting registration against Bethel’s property.


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Last modified: 27-04-24
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