Christian churches and charities come under increasing pressure to conform to secular ideologies
In 1874, the British House of Lords (then Canada’s final court of appeal) dealt with the Guibord case from Quebec involving a dispute over the burial of a “public sinner” in a Roman Catholic cemetery. The Privy Council ruled that it did not have the jurisdiction to interfere with ecclesiastical affairs. It could not force the Church to change its doctrine, but it could intervene if the Church violated its own rules and procedures. Ultimately, since Guibord had not been formally excommunicated, the court ordered the Church to allow the burial of his remains in consecrated ground. The Church complied – but then promptly held another religious service to deconsecrate the burial plot!
The twists and turns of this case reveal the difficulties that can arise when the courts get involved in religious disputes. While much has changed in the last 146 years, the legal principles still apply today: in our multicultural nation, religious communities have autonomy to make theological decisions in accordance with their own beliefs and practices. This is, in part, a practical recognition that external interference is unlikely to be effective – as the Guibord case clearly illustrates! Attempting to compel conscience tends to result in conflict rather than compliance. Respect for religious freedom also rests on a philosophical understanding that accommodating conscience and religion is foundational for a diverse, pluralist democracy.
The Aga Case
Recently, however, we have seen this legal history being eroded by troubling decisions that call into question the freedom of religious organizations. If left unchallenged, these decisions could limit the ability of Christian churches and charities to serve in accordance with their beliefs.
For instance, in the 2020 Aga case, which involved a dispute over allegations of heresy, the Ontario Court of Appeal (ONCA) created confusion by deciding that courts can review membership decisions made by religious organizations. The ONCA’s decision is directly at odds with the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2018 Wall decision, which reaffirmed that civil courts have no jurisdiction when it comes to church membership or other internal, religious affairs. Yet the ONCA concluded that church membership alone is a legally enforceable contract, and described tithes to a church as “consideration” (exchange of something within a contractual relationship).
What This Means
Not only does the Aga decision conflict with the Supreme Court’s Wall decision, it places religious institutions and churches in a position of uncertainty. It raises questions concerning the freedom of religious organizations to maintain internal, Biblical policies related to membership or employment, particularly if those policies are deemed “discriminatory” by the public.
If the case remains unchallenged, then churches and Christian charities will be vulnerable to judicial review – that is, having judges look into theological matters. This could expose charities to expensive legal challenges which have the potential to force churches to comply with secular principles of “non-discrimination” in settling internal disputes. As I have argued in The Status of Religion and the Public Benefit in Charity Law, this kind of thinking will lead to further pressure to remove the charitable status of churches, unless they sacrifice the spiritual principles that define their ministry.
Given the serious implications of the Aga case, the Canadian Council of Christian Charities (CCCC) was pleased to see that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church chose to appeal the ONCA decision. We are also thankful that the Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear the case. However, this is going to be an expensive undertaking. Because the results of this case will have an impact on our membership – and on the wider Christian community – we have decided to assist the church in moving forward.
Our desire is not merely to support the church in taking a stand on the specific issues of this case but, even more importantly, to proclaim the Gospel. CCCC has come together with other Christian organizations in preparing to intervene in the case. As we work with other believers, this is an opportunity to demonstrate the love and unity of Christ’s body. We are inspired by the example of the Apostle Paul, who pursued a hearing before the Roman authorities in order to declare the Truth.
None of this would be possible without the faithful, sacrificial support of donors who contribute to CCCC’s Legal Defence Fund. The Fund was created in 1984 in order to advocate on behalf of Christian ministries in Canada. It provides CCCC with the means to be proactive in researching, writing, publishing, and speaking on topics that directly impact churches and charities across the country. In short, it allows the Legal Affairs team to be influential in matters of national importance.
The Aga case, though significant, is not the only challenge facing religious communities in Canada. As Christian churches and charities come under increasing pressure to conform to secular ideologies on marriage, euthanasia, or abortion, the need for the Legal Defence Fund is increasingly apparent. Our concern is that our members be permitted to operate their charities in accordance with their consciences.
Your generous support of the Legal Defence Fund allows us to be intentional as we prayerfully seek to extend a Godly influence (1 Chronicles 4:10) through our interactions with policy makers, legal professionals, and the wider public.
We recognize that, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, many individuals and organizations are facing difficult times financially, and we understand if you are not in a position to give. But if you are able, please consider joining with us. We humbly ask for your prayers as we seek wisdom, discernment, and boldness in pursuing the Lord’s leading (Ephesians 6:19-20), and we gratefully acknowledge our dependence on your financial gifts. To donate to the Legal Defence Fund, please visit https://www.cccc.org/sector_representation.
Finally, to stay informed on the Aga case and other current issues involving law and religion which we are working on, I invite you to subscribe to my Intersection blog.
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