Court should take more active role over religious disputes, Law Times, Vol. 22, No. 40 (December 12, 2011)

Court should take more active role over religious disputes, Law Times, Vol. 22, No. 40 (December 12, 2011)

By Nikolay Y. Chsherbinin

As with their secular counterparts, disputes aren’t uncommon in religious organizations and may take different forms. There may be factional disagreements between members or even wrongful dismissal claims, as exemplified by the Ontario Court of Appeal decision in Hart v. Roman Catholic Episcopal Corp. of the Diocese of Kingston in Canada.

Central to these disputes is the court’s jurisdiction to adjudicate them. Hart concerned what may be classified as a religious dispute. It raises an intriguing question of what happens when the courts encounter employment disputes answerable by canon law. In the court’s view, wrongful dismissal claims arising from an ecclesiastical relationship are not justiciable in civil courts because they are subject to an internal review process established by a religious organization. Hart reaffirms that judicial supervision of the functioning of a self-governing organization is legally narrow.

In Hart, an ordained Roman Catholic priest, Rev. Brian Hart, was appointed for a six- year renewable term as pastor. In this role, he was subject to canon law, a normative system that governs the church and its members. From 2006 to 2008, the archdiocese placed Hart on administrative leave, suspended his facilities to exercise sacramental ministry, and ultimately removed him from his ecclesiastical office. Prior to his removal, it issued Hart three decrees, each of which he could, but did not appeal, under canon law. Instead, Hart brought an action for damages for constructive dismissal in the Superior Court.

In response, the archdiocese moved to stay Hart’s action on the grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction over his claim. The motion judge found that the archdiocese’s internal processes, which are designed to address employment-related disputes, do not offend the principles of natural justice and stayed Hart’s action. Hart appealed but failed to persuade the court that it had jurisdiction to adjudicate his claim.

In refusing to exercise its jurisdiction, the court explained that the Roman Catholic Church is a self-governing organization. Its canon law provides for the internal review process and offers a broad range of remedies, including the substitution of a different decree, monetary compensation, and even a trial. Because Hart had neither exhausted the internal review process nor alleged that it breaches the requirements of natural justice, the court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate his claim.

Contrast Hart with David v. Congregation B’Nai Israel. On a similar jurisdiction motion, the court in that case found it had jurisdiction to adjudicate Rabbi Joseph Ben David’s wrongful dismissal case despite the congregation’s internal review mechanisms and, importantly, the rabbinical court of New York’s competing jurisdictional claim. At trial, the court granted 30 months’ notice to a 59-year old rabbi terminated after 26 years.

In Hart, the court explained that the general rule that the Superior Court has jurisdiction to adjudicate wrongful dismissal claims has several exceptions. One is where the essential character of an employer-employee dispute arises from the interpretation, application, administration or violation of a collective agreement. Another exception is where the rules of a self-governing organization, especially a religious one, provide an internal dispute resolution process. The former disputes must be resolved by arbitration, while the latter go through the organization’s internal procedures. Consequently, a court will interfere in the internal affairs of a self-governing organization in two situations: where the organization’s internal processes are unfair or do not meet the requirements of natural justice or where the aggrieved party has exhausted them.

Significantly, the reviewing court will not consider the merits of the internal decision but will determine only whether the decision was carried out in accordance with the organization’s rules and the requirements of natural justice. The more difficult question is whether a litigant is bound to follow an internal review process instead of suing in the civil court where the relationship with a self-governing organization was multifaceted and involved property and civil rights.

The answer to this question appears to turn on the nature of the litigant’s dispute with the organization. The court explained that the nature of the dispute is determined not by its legal classification but by the facts giving rise to it. In Hart, the plaintiff argued that some aspects of his dispute concerned matters of property, namely his loss of lodging. The court brushed his argument aside, stating that “at its essence this dispute is ecclesiastical.” Regrettably, the court neither delineated the contours of an ecclesiastical dispute within religious organizations nor offered factors capable of turning an internal church matter into an ecclesiastical one. Therefore, this pronouncement creates uncertainty because it is unclear which disputes are ecclesiastical and not subject to judicial oversight and which are not.

This is of significance in part because in Ivantchenko v. The Sisters of Saint Kosmas Aitolos Greek Orthodox Monastery, the motion judge, having refused to grant summary judgment against a nun who sought damages for constructive dismissal, acknowledged that “the concepts underpinning the relationship between civil law, on the one hand, and religious organizations and their internal laws, on the other hand, have not been fully worked out.”

It does not help to insist that the courts should avoid deciding secular legal questions in cases involving religious organizations. The prevailing argument that adjudications involving people who voluntarily chose to be a member of a self-governing organization should be governed by its internal review process creates its own difficulties. Firstly, it may well be that lawyers or even non-lawyers who drafted documents purporting to govern a particular dispute did not do so in ways that reflect the ecclesiastical or secular realities of the organization. Secondly, there may be no documentation at all. Thirdly, the organization may not have a tribunal in place governing the subject matter. Lastly, there may be a need, like in Ivantchenko, to determine who are the proper employers.

In my view, the courts should take a more active role in adjudicating employment law disputes in cases involving religious organizations as long as they do not intrude into the determination of the doctrinal issues.

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