The Courts have been slow to interfere in conflicts between non-profit entities, including those incorporated under the Societies Act of British Columbia (such as many churches), and their members. But a case decided by the Supreme Court of British Columbia on December 6, 2007 shows that this reticence may be changing, and that membership, even in a church, carries with it legally protected privileges.
As with many cases that nudge legal trends in a different direction, the facts in this case arose in the context of what many would call ‘the fringe’; a nudist camp. The Sol Sante Club is an incorporated society committed to nudism at a secluded 178-acre location on Vancouver Island. There are approximately 185 members, 15 of which are “probationary”. Full members have the privilege of being assigned a “lot” on the Club property for cabin or RV use. Mr. Grenier became a probationary member in the Club in 2004, and rented a cabin from a certified member. But after only a few months the Club directors revoked his membership without notice, saying he was a ‘loner’, made some members feel uneasy and did not contribute to Club purposes or “follow its beliefs and aims”, among other things. The conflict ‘went legal’ when the Club sought a Court order to keep Mr. Grenier off the Club grounds, and he in turn sought reinstatement in the Club.
The Court determined that, given the Club’s bylaws and the rules of natural justice, the Club directors were not entitled to terminate Mr. Grenier’s membership without notice, without having heard ‘his side’ and without giving reasons for their decision. But perhaps the most eyebrow-raising outcome was what the Court imposed on the Club as a consequence. The Judge reinstated the membership of Mr. Grenier (though probationary) and awarded him certain expenses for loss of the use of Club member’s property, as well as general damages of $10,000 for “loss of reputation” and “the social and emotional impact”.
Despite the apparent dissimilarity with a nudist camp, a church can learn a great deal from the principles to be gleaned from this Court decision. First, the Court can and will intervene in the affairs of a church or other society if there is conduct that constitutes a breach of the Society Act, the society’s bylaws, or common law principles of procedural fairness (essentially the duty of fair play and good faith in society procedures). Second, membership carries with it privileges that are protected legally, requiring careful attention to the adoption and implementation of properly drafted bylaws, policies and procedures. Third, the Court can and will enforce a member’s rights, including reinstatement of membership, and order the payment of damages where those rights have been contravened.
We live in an era where personal rights are often deemed paramount, and religious organizations suspect. To exist within the matrix of ever-changing laws of our land, and avoid the embarrassment and expense of being found non-compliant, great care needs to be given by churches to carefully drafted and implemented bylaws, policies and procedures, and diligence in understanding the legal obligations of church leadership.
This article was written by Robert G. Kuhn, a lawyer who practices in charity and not-for-profit law with the law firm of Kuhn LLP. It is only intended as a guide and cannot cover every situation. It is important to get legal advice for specific situations. If you have questions or comments about this case or other construction law matters, please contact us at 604-864-8877.