A crucifix in the halls of government does not mean the municipality is under “the yoke of the Catholic religion,” a Quebec judge ruled. CNS photo

Quebec prayer ruling could have nationwide effect

  • June 6, 2013

The Quebec Court of Appeal recently overturned a provincial human rights commission ruling regarding the opening prayer at Saguenay City Council. The commission had ruled that the mayor, Jean Tremblay, must cease saying the opening prayer and also pay $30,000 in damages to the complainant. The court, however, said the tribunal got it wrong and that the opening prayer did not significantly affect the state’s “religious neutrality” and should therefore be allowed.

The ruling is an interesting one that could have implications for similar cases in progress elsewhere in Canada.

The complaint to the human rights commission was made by Alain Simoneau, who claimed the prayer to an “all-powerful God,” as well as a crucifix and a statue of the Sacred Heart in the council chambers, infringed on his rights as a non-believer. The commission agreed with his argument that the city’s religious neutrality was being compromised.

It ruled that since there were vestiges of Catholicism in the prayer and the religious symbols, the city was favouring one religion over others. The mayor appealed and the court case was backed by fundraising from both within and outside Quebec.

In a decision written by Justice Guy Gagnon, the appeal court said neutrality does not require “that society be cleansed of all denominational reality, including that which falls within its cultural history.” There was no evidence that the prayer, recited before the opening of council meetings, was imposing religious views on citizens or shaping government actions, he said. Simoneau had objected to the prayer because it forced him to “embrace a concept recognizing a form of divine supremacy.” But the judge concluded Simoneau is not someone “particularly vulnerable to any message that is not in harmony with his moral values.”

According to a report in Post Media, the court said the prayer expresses universal values that are not identified with a particular religion. In any case, the decision noted, examples of Christian symbolism abound but there is no evidence that they compromise the government’s neutrality, citing as examples Canada’s national anthem, the white cross on Quebec’s flag and the cross atop Mount Royal.

The judge said the religious symbols in Saguenay, an artist’s rendition of a crucifix and a 60-centimetre-high statue of the Sacred Heart had been present in city hall for decades. The court said that for a large part of the population these symbols have been stripped of their religious significance and are seen as historical artifacts. Nothing in the evidence suggest that these symbols indicate the city is “under the yoke of the Catholic religion,” he wrote.

When a similar controversy arose in Ontario over the Lord’s Prayer being said at the start of meetings of the legislature, many told public hearings that a true understanding of religious diversity would mean that all faiths are welcomed, rather than removing all religious readings or prayers from public gatherings. Cardinal Thomas Collins was not against non-Christian prayers being used to open public debates, but argued that tradition and the large Christian majority meant the Our Father should be continued. The Catholic Civil Rights League made a similar argument, suggesting that rotating the prayer with that of other faith groups in Ontario would be a viable option.

Nevertheless, for atheists and other committed “secularists” any prayer in the public forum is an exclusionary practice to be challenged. In 1999 the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the town council of Penetanguishene, Ont., was violating constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by starting meetings with The Lord’s Prayer. (The decision also stated that a non-denominational prayer and moment of silence would be constitutional.)

Currently, an organization called Secular Ontario has identified some 28 municipalities in which the Our Father is recited at meetings. The organization has sent letters to most of them to urge that they cease and desist. Ontario’s Grey County is the subject of an ongoing court case to force its council to stop praying the Our Father at meetings. The legal papers, served last July, allege that the practice of reciting a Christian prayer at a government meeting is illegal.

It’s quite possible the Quebec decision will now have value as a precedent in the Ontario case. It could also have weight in an application to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission that is challenging the reading of grace before meals at a government-sponsored banquet. In both cases, decisions will be made on how to accommodate diverse religious beliefs and practices in the public forum.

(McGarry is executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada.)

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