On March 9, 2010 the Supreme Court of British Columbia weighed in on yet another church dispute in our province (Viitre v. St. Peter’s Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2010 BCSC 296). Try though they might, churches in B.C. seem to keep ending up before the courts. There are three lessons from this latest conflict that churches can learn to help prevent this situation from occurring in their church.
Mr. Vittre attended St. Peter’s Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church since 1965 and formerly sat on the Church council. He brought his Church to court over some of his concerns regarding the Church leadership. Among the things Mr. Vittre asked for the Church to send out notice for Annual General Meeting (“AGM”) again. He also requested that an independent third party be appointed to confirm the membership list and that such a list be provided to him. This mattered because the people who attended and voted at the AGM would decide who would govern the church the following year.
Notice of the AGM
The Church was required by its Constitution and the BC Society Act to give notice to ALL voting members at least 14 days in advance. The Church tried multiple methods of notice including posting notice on the bulletin board and the church website, publishing in a local magazine and announcing in Church.
The Church admitted, and the Court confirmed that, the notice was not sufficient. The Court stated that, “notice by publication in a church or society bulletin is inadequate. Failure to provide proper notice of a meeting and election is a defect or irregularity in the conduct of the affairs of a society” (paragraph 28).
Lesson 1: Ensure that proper notice is given in accordance with the Constitution and the BC Society Act. Do it right the first time to avoid doing it again.
Mr. Vittre felt that the membership lists may be inaccurate. He wanted to have an independent person compile the list and the right to inspect it. The Church defended the accuracy of its membership list and refused to provide it, saying that to do would violate its obligations under the Personal Information and Privacy Act (“PIPA”)
The Court’s decision on this issue was split. The Court found that the list was accurate and that the Church was capable of compiling it without outside assistance. It did; however, require the Church to give Mr. Vittre a copy. What is important to note is why. The Court specifically found that, “the Society Act does not require a British Columbia society to file its register of members with the Registrar of Companies, or make its register of members available for inspection or copying by members” (para. 49). So if the law did not require it, who did? Unfortunately, the Church’s own Constitution and Bylaws provided that any voting member was entitled to inspect the books and records of the congregation, which would include the membership list.
The Court did recognize a disclosure of private information but found that the Court could order this production if they thought it appropriate. In this case, they chose to limit the information somewhat but did disclose the names, membership class and eligibility to vote.
Lesson 2: Know what your Constitution and Bylaws say. Follow them. If they require you to disclose private information make sure your members are aware that their information may be used this way before they sign up so that you do not violate PIPA.
Ultimately the BCSC found that both parties had succeeded and thus both had to cover their own court costs, which likely were not insignificant. There are no winners when churches end up before the courts. Aside from the financial toll, consider the impact this dispute has had on the church community as a whole. The final lesson came from the judge who commented, “More open communication on the part of both parties might have avoided some of the controversy which culminated in this petition” (paragraph 41).
This article was written by Meghan A. Maddigan, a lawyer who practices in charity law at 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 charity law matters, please contact us at 604-864-8877.