Saguenay Mayor vows to fight prayer ban

By 
  • February 23, 2011
The Catholic mayor of Saguenay, Que., is appealing for donations to help him fight a Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ruling that ordered him to stop opening council meetings with a prayer.

Mayor Jean Tremblay said he will appeal the decision all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

“We make a prayer, all the council, since the beginning of the city 150 years ago,” said Tremblay in an interview from Saguenay of the 20-second prayer said before the opening of council meetings.

Tremblay has also refused to heed an order to remove a crucifix and a small statue of the Sacred Heart from council chambers.

“We don’t agree with that because those objects for some people that means our faith, for some others our culture, for some other our tradition,” he said.

The tribunal also ordered Saguenay to pay $30,000 in moral and punitive damages to atheist Alain Simoneau, who complained the prayers violated his freedom of conscience.

“If you are an atheist, you can be an atheist, but you cannot force the other people to think like you,” Tremblay said. “I am Catholic, not everyone has to be Catholic.

“Let me have my faith and I will let you have yours and it is possible for everyone to live together,” he added, claiming he is the first mayor in the history of the world to be fined for praying.

“In Quebec we don’t respect Catholic people,” he said, pointing out that all other religions seem to be respected except the Catholic faith.

To relieve taxpayers of the legal bills, already in excess of $57,000, the mayor has posted a special link on the city’s web site (www.ville.saguenay.qc.ca/) showing the statue of Jesus with a title in French that translates: “Donations. Prayer on trial.” In the first five days after launching the appeal on Feb. 16, more than $50,000 was raised. Tremblay said any money left over after legal costs will go to local food banks.

The mayor said money and support has poured in from across Quebec, the rest of Canada and even from the United States and Europe. Both Catholics and Protestants support his campaign.

Although the mayor has received inter-faith support, religious freedom expert and constitutional lawyer Iain Benson, a Catholic, said that, rather than saying a prayer, it would be better if council devoted a moment of silence, so “the transcendent is given general recognition.”

“The Province of Quebec, owing in part to its cultural history, needs to find balance between an anti-religious secularism which would exclude religion from any public relevance and a harking back to a time when religion had a tendency to over-reach,” he said. “That is always the problem when any particular cultural force has a strong majority — then it was Catholicism, now it is secularism.” 

Tremblay said he would have no problem with prayers from another faith if they were represented around the table. The prayer is not a Catholic prayer, he said, but one asking “God to help us in our decisions.” The prayer would be suitable for Muslims and Jews, too, he added.

Simoneau said he was not fighting a personal battle but sought the neutrality of the state. In a television interview he said he called himself an ardent defender of “la laïcité,” or secularism. He said he has nothing against Christians or Muslims.

Though Saguenay has been ordered to remove its crucifix, the Quebec National Assembly has no plans to get rid of the one hanging over the Speaker’s chair, an aide to Provincial Minister Kathleen Weil told the Montreal Gazette.  The aide said the crucifix is part of Quebec’s “historic heritage.”

Quebec has the highest number of baptized Catholics of any province, but the lowest level of church attendance.

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