‘Low-rent absurdity’ case shows our frightening times

  • September 20, 2011

MONTREAL - Paula Celani will be in a Montreal courtroom Nov. 1 fighting a fine for attending an illegal Roman Catholic Mass.

Canadians of all religious faiths — and even those who care only about protecting Charter freedoms — should cross their fingers that she wins.

Celani actually showed up to fight the case this week. Alas, three public sector “witnesses” expected to testify against her were no shows so the matter was delayed until the day after Halloween.

“I’m not sure why I’m the one who has to make the effort to come back when they’re the ones who didn’t show up,” Celani said after Tuesday’s brief hearing before Judge Jean-Pierre Bessette. “It doesn’t make sense, but then nothing about this does. It’s ridiculous.”

Ridiculous doesn’t begin to describe it. Frightening is a much better place to start for the events that began with an entirely uneventful gathering of a Catholic group on Oct. 4, 2009. Celani is the one in court only because her signature was on a $700 rental contract for the use of two rooms in a city-owned complex called La Maison du Brasseur in the borough of Lachine, just west of downtown Montreal.

About 100 people belonging to a lay Catholic association used the rooms to watch some inspirational videos and have a potluck lunch together. Oh, and horror of horrors, they sang songs and held a Mass behind closed doors. Then everyone went home. End of story. Or so it seemed.

Except that seven months later, in April 2010, Celani received a $144 ticket for having allowed the Mass to take place.

By so doing, she had broken a bylaw that prohibits “cultic” activity such as “praying, singing religious songs or conducting religious celebrations.” Under the same regulations, interestingly, renters are allowed to serve liquor provided they have the necessary permits. They are forbidden, however, from using propane tanks to cook inside the building. So, you can get hammered in La Maison du Brasseur. You just can’t blow the place up — or mention God.

What Celani and her group did not realize was that they were being “observed” by three employees of the borough of Lachine working at the complex that day. In fact, no one had warned Celani, or anyone else in the group, that a Catholic Mass is now a legally prohibited activity in parts of Quebec.

Still, the observers dutifully filed reports attesting that the law had been ravaged by prayer, song and thanksgiving.

One of the employees, Virginie Gagnon, complained some of the group were even guilty of “soliciting” by attempting to sell rosary beads within the Maison du Brasseur precincts.

(In fact, Celani admits, some younger members were selling rosaries to their friends to raise money for an aid project in Haiti. In the immortal words of Ebenezer Scrooge: “Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?”)

Elsewhere in the 15-page document that forms the evidentiary basis for the case against Celani, an employee/witness named Francois Vaillancourt notes that in one video a man on the screen was “speaking in Italian, I believe.” Italian, eh? Suspicious, that. No doubt some kind of code these Catholics use among themselves. Kind of like Latin for Mafioso.

Such low-rent absurdity can’t be allowed to obscure the very real, very serious, very frightening abuse of Charter-guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion here.

By what authority can municipal pipsqueaks in Montreal or Lachine or anywhere else for that matter, decide that “religious songs” are anathema while hip-hop music, to take one genre, is just ducky?

Under what mandate can they forbid a group of people from renting a room to quietly celebrate their faith, yet allow, say, a group of louts to rent space to set up a TV and collectively drink their faces off watching the Canadiens lose to the Leafs during the Stanley Cup playoffs? (Okay, bad example because it will never happen.)

And finally, how do they dare go against established Charter law that freedom of religion doesn’t just mean the freedom to keep one’s faith in one’s head? It means the freedom to live out that faith within the very wide ambit of reasonable behaviour in a free and democratic society.

With luck, these questions will all be answered Nov. 1 when Judge Bessette throws out the ticket and Celani walks out of the courtroom with a big smile on her face, having won one for freedom. Fingers crossed. If not, if the fine is upheld, we are in frightening times indeed.

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