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Rights league defends church rights to manage own affairs

  • January 7, 2021

A little legal ecumenism played out on Zoom before the Supreme Court of Canada as the Catholic Civil Rights League, along with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, came to the defence of Canada’s Ethiopian Orthodox Archbishop Abune Dimetros.

The Catholic Civil Rights League takes no position on orthodox or unorthodox liturgy in the Geez Rite of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church, but it was keen to protect the right of faith communities to manage their own affairs without the interference of civil courts, said veteran CCRL lawyer Phil Horgan, who argued the case on Dec. 9 before the Zoomed-in Supreme Court, along with fellow lawyer Raphael Fernandes.

“We live in a civil society where there should be a healthy respect for religious freedom and the freedom of religious institutions in particular,” Horgan told The Catholic Register.

Dimetros and his closest advisors have been in a legal  battle  with five members of the cathedral parish of St. Mary’s in Toronto ever since the archbishop expelled the parishioners for repeatedly accusing him of tolerating heresy. Dimetros offended his ultra-orthodox congregants by not imposing stricter penalties on a liturgical movement.

The five expelled parishioners had formed a commission of inquiry into the liturgical movement, deemed it heretical and recommended its adherents be purged.

When Dimetros opted for a more pastoral approach, the former commission members persisted in their complaint and the archbishop expelled them from the cathedral parish but allowed them to continue to worship at other parishes, according to court documents.

The first court to hear the complaint against Dimetros dismissed it as outside the court’s jurisdiction. But an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling said that because members of the parish sign a membership form and agree to support the church financially, a contract may exist between the church and its congregants. If so, then the congregants may have a claim to procedural fairness.

This decision was appealed to the Supreme Court.

“The courts should not be the arbiters of religious dogma,” said Horgan. “Judges, the state, are not particularly competent to wade into matters that are doctrinal or infused with religious propositions.”

The case should matter to Catholics, since a decision in the other direction raises the prospect of civil court cases trying to overturn decisions of Catholic bishops or canon law tribunals, said Horgan. In everything from the appointment of priests to the suppression or erection of parishes, bishops shouldn’t have to guess how their decisions might play out in a civil court.

“They (the five aggrieved parishioners) wished that a civil court tell the archbishop what he should have done. Play that forward to other religious communities,” Horgan said.

The idea that belonging to a parish or a faith community is anything like a contract just doesn’t compute, said Horgan. 

“People don’t enter into a contract when they become members of a congregation. When they give money, that shouldn’t be conceived as consideration in the classic formulation of what is needed to form a contract,” he said.

“They don’t come to church, or become members of the community, or volunteer with the community because they feel they are complying with a contractual norm. They are engaging in aspirational commitments, spiritual commitments.”

The Supreme Court reserved its  decision.

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