Montreal ruling strikes blow for religious freedom

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  • March 14, 2013

With all eyes fixed on Rome, it’s not surprising that Paula Celani’s moment of victory in a Montreal courtroom has gone almost unheralded.

Yet while the world’s media watched, commented upon, speculated about, and, as my colleague Fr. Raymond de Souza has written, sometimes outright fabricated events around the choosing of a new pope, Celani struck a blow for religious freedom last week that should resonate with every person of faith.

How? By winning a three-year court fight to quash a municipal fine levied against her for renting public premises in which a purportedly “illegal Mass” was held.

Yes, it’s true: the bylaw ticket she had thrown out was only $144. But put that in perspective. How much did Rosa Parks pay for the bus ticket in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refused to yield her seat to a white person 57 years ago?

Of course, at first blush it may seem almost absurdly disproportionate to compare the defiance that started the American civil rights movement to a squabble over a bylaw infraction in modern Canada. Yet freedom, by its nature, is neither small nor large. It exists. Or it doesn’t.

Parks fought back against the agents of a system that attacked fundamental human rights and human dignity on the basis of unconscionable bigotry.

Just so, Celani fought back against unthinking, unblinking municipal bureaucrats who abused the law to support systemic prejudice against public exercise of religious faith. Perhaps most importantly, she fought back against her own impulse to forget the fight, pay the stupid ticket and be done with it.

Instead, she did two very clever and crucial things. 1) She committed to fighting through the courts as far as necessary to get the ticket overturned. 2) She teamed up with Robert Reynolds, a lawyer with the Montreal office of the Christian Legal Fellowship, who is as quiet and unassuming as he is implacable.

Reynolds quickly realized the ticket issued to Celani had no basis in law. She had received it in 2010, several months after renting a public facility in suburban Lachine where she and some Catholic friends had gathered for a day of fellowship, food and Mass.

The borough of Lachine fined her because the contract she was obliged to sign prohibited religious services in the space she rented. Municipal authorities claimed that the contract provision was based on a city of Montreal bylaw that prohibits worship in public buildings — even those rented for private gatherings.

But as Reynolds argued in court, the bylaw says nothing of the sort. It’s a zoning ordinance. It regulates where houses of worship can be built, not where people can pray. Judge Bernard Mandeville could not have agreed more emphatically.

“He accepted our argument entirely,” Reynolds told me. “He disagreed totally with the other side’s argument.”

He acknowledged that he would have preferred it if the case had been argued in a higher court where constitutional issues could be raised explicitly. But, he said, the material thing is the message sent across the country that religious believers are free not just to believe, but also to practise their beliefs in public.

“The principle is the same everywhere (in Canada),” Reynolds said. “Religious believers should not be prevented from renting premises to hold a religious service.

“I hope the message will get out that believers should be able to rent such premises in the same way someone else would be able to rent them for a non-religious purpose: for a wedding, a party or any kind of gathering. A religious service is, after all, a social activity. It just has a different purpose.”

He hopes, too, a second vital message reaches a different audience.

“What happened here is that overzealous municipal employees misinterpreted their own law. I think they did it because, increasingly, the message is getting out that religion must not be tolerated in public spaces. Everyone has bought into that. This judgment makes clear that just isn’t so.”

He has asked to have the judge’s ruling in writing so it can be made available to anyone who might end up in a similar situation.

“Any believer who is presented with a contract like (the one forced on Celani) should insist the clause be removed. If it isn’t removed, there’s a basis for taking (the municipality) to court or filing a human rights complaint,” Reynolds said.

And wouldn’t that be the shoe on the other foot on the long march back to religious freedom?
(Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for

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