Religious Organizations Fall Outside Courts’ Jurisdiction to Award Employment Related Damages

Employment Related Damages for Religious Organizations -- Man with cross

In Hart v. Roman Catholic Episcopal Corp. of the Diocese of Kingston, in Canada the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a Motion Judge’s decision that the Ontario Superior Court of Justice lacked jurisdiction over employment law matters that are ecclesiastical in nature.


The employee, Father Hart, is an ordained Roman Catholic priest who was appointed pastor to a Roman Catholic church in Picton, Ontario and to another church in Wellington, Ontario in 2004.

In 2006, one of Father Hart’s business relationships as well as irregularities in the parish finances began to concern the Archdiocese. Due to these concerns, the following three decrees were issued against Father Hart: in July of 2006 Father Hart was placed on administrative leave; in May of 2007 his faculties to exercise sacramental ministry were suspended; and, in June of 2008 Father Hart was removed from his office.

Instead of appealing these three decrees through the internal channels permitted by canon law, Father Hart brought an action in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice seeking damages from the Archdiocese for constructive dismissal.

Motion Regarding Jurisdiction

In response to Father Hart’s action, the Archdiocese brought a motion to stay Father Hart’s civil action on the basis that the Ontario Superior Court of Justice had no jurisdiction over his claim as the employment relationship that existed between Father Hart and the Archdiocese was ecclesiastical in nature and was governed by cannon law, therefore requiring Father Hart to seek an appeal of the decrees through the internal review process provided by canon law and not through the court system.

The motion Judge, Beaudoin J., agreed with the Archdiocese’s argument and stated the following:

“The essence of the claim between Father Hart and the Archdiocese is ecclesiastical in nature and this court has no jurisdiction over that dispute. Moreover, the internal processes that are designed to deal with that dispute do not offend the principles of natural justice and Father Hart has not exhausted the internal processes available to him. For these reasons, these proceedings constitute an abuse of process and are stayed.”

Father Hart appealed the motion Judge’s decision to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal indicated that as a general rule the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has jurisdiction to adjudicate claims of wrongful dismissal and breach of an employment contract with only two exceptions. The first is “…where the essential character of a dispute between an employer and an employee arises from the interpretation, application, administration, or violation of a collective agreement”, and the second is “…where the rules of self-governing organization, especially a religious organization, provide an internal dispute resolution process.”

Further, the Court of Appeal stated,

“The courts will interfere in the internal affairs of a self-governing organization in only 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 the organization’s internal processes. In the latter case, subject to any enabling statutory provision, 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.”

Given the above, the Court of Appeal dismissed Father Hart’s appeal, finding that “at its core Father Hart’s dispute with the Archdiocese is ecclesiastical in nature and subject to canon law” and that “[w]hen he was appointed pastor, his appointment was expressly subject to canon law.” As a result, the Court of Appeal upheld the motion Judge’s decision and concluded that “[r]edress must be sought through the internal review process established by canon law for disputes of an ecclesiastical nature.”

Points of Interest

The above case demonstrates that not all employment related disputes are able to be pursued through the court system. In addition to the well known exception of employment relationships governed by a collective agreement, which falls into the category of labour law, the above case highlights the less commonly known exception of self-governing organizations with internal dispute resolution processes.

As indicated above, employment with such organizations prevents an employee from pursuing their employer through the court system without first attempting to resolve the matter through the channels of internal dispute resolution offered by the organization. However, this does not permit such employers from being able to ignore court decisions. The internal dispute resolution processes provided must be in accordance with natural justice, thereby permitting these employees to seek a fair appeal of any organizational decisions impacting on their employment.

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