In a case involving the Ethiopian Coptic Court, Canadian Justices ruled that a precedent concerning the Jehovah’s Witnesses has general value.
by Massimo Introvigne
On May 21, 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to review a decision of the Ethiopian Coptic Archbishop of Toronto, who had expelled five members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the historical Coptic church of Ethiopia, with some 36 million members. Recently, within the Western diaspora of the church, an “evangelical” movement arose, which tried to import into the Coptic church some features of Protestant evangelical theology, and downplay the veneration of the Virgin Mary that is typical of Ethiopian spirituality.
In the Toronto congregation, the presence of this movement generated widespread controversy. The Archbishop appointed a committee, which recommended harsh disciplinary measures to eradicate the movement. Having read the report, the Archbishop censored some individuals, but his action fell short of the draconian measures the committee had recommended. Members of the committee then became increasingly vocal in their criticism of the Archbishop, accusing him of tolerating heresy. In the end, it was not the “evangelicals” but five members of the committee whom the Archbishop expelled from the church.
Paradoxically, since normally conservative religionists defend the idea that secular courts have no authority to interfere in theological disputes, these conservative members appealed to a secular court asking the judges to declare their expulsion null, void, and contrary to “principles of natural justice.” Their action was dismissed, but the Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the expelled members, arguing that the bylaws of a voluntary organization such as the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada constitute a “contract,” and a trial was needed to determine whether the Archbishop has breached it.
Unanimously, the Supreme Court reversed this finding, stating that bylaws of a voluntary organization “are practical measures by which to pursue shared goals. But they do not in and of themselves give rise to contractual relations among the individuals who join. […] The members of the local minor hockey league, or a group formed to oppose development of green spaces, or a Bible study group, for example, do not enter into enforceable legal obligations just because they have joined a group with rules that members are expected to follow.”
Several organizations submitted amici briefs. Most of the largest Canadian religious bodies intervened to support the Coptic Church, including the Evangelical Fellowship, the Roman Catholic Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh-day Adventist, and the National Council of Canadian Muslims. Several secular humanist associations intervened to support the expelled church members.
At stake was whether the general principle that secular courts have no business in reviewing matters of excommunication and disfellowshipping, affirmed by the Supreme Court in the 2018 Wall case that concerned the Jehovah’s Witnesses, has universal validity, and should be applied to all religions, including those that have formal bylaws. Secular humanists tried to argue that Wall should not be considered as a precedent of general value or it would “unjustifiably shield religious organizations and their leadership from judicial scrutiny.”
The Supreme Court, however, disagreed, and maintained that, whether or not by-laws exist, the Wall precedent stands, and the corporate religious liberty of the Ethiopian Coptic Tewahedo Church, as of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Wall, implies that decisions of disfellowshipping or expelling members of a religious organization taken by its properly constituted authorities are not justiciable.
In times where corporate religious liberty is frequently under attack by those who would privilege the individual rights of the devotees, this decision by the Canadian Supreme Court is a welcome addition to the existing case law, and will be hopefully influential beyond Canada.