North of the border, many secularists (at least the ones I know) look on the spectacle of American religiosity in the media with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity: how can public officials get away with such blatant religious promotion. Yet Canada has its own religious demons, so to speak, that we’re working to exorcise from the public sphere.
The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has decided to take a closer look at one of those demons: the practice of opening government meetings across the country with an explicit or implied Christian prayer.
The specific case they’ve agreed to hear is that of Alain Simoneau, who brought a complaint against the city (ville) of Saguenay, Quebec, before the province’s human rights tribunal (the Tribunal des droits de la personne du Québec, QBTDP, or simply the Tribunal — and yes, naturally, the link is in French). In his application, Simoneau noted that public council meetings in Saguenay open with the recitation of a prayer (which begins and ends with the Sign of the Cross and includes a reference to Almighty God). He also objects to the presence of Catholic religious imagery (a crucifix and a Sacred Heart statue) in the room where the government’s public business takes place.
Simoneau, working with the Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ), contends that these practices, as expressions of government non-neutrality on religious matters, violate the freedom of conscience and religion of non-Christian participants. Avidly interested in municipal politics, Simoneau is an atheist who has expressed his dissent from Catholicism by sending a formal act of apostasy to the Montréal diocese. (Get your own act of apostasy right here! Be aware, though, that since 2010, most sectors of the Church treat written formal acts of apostasy as junk mail.)
The Tribunal ruled in Simoneau’s favour:
… the Tribunal concludes that the reciting of the prayer at public Ville de Saguenay meetings and the presence of religious symbols in the rooms where the meetings are held impair Mr. Simoneau’s right to full and equal recognition of his freedom of conscience and religion without discrimination based on religion, namely, his right not to be subjected to, or forced to hold, a conviction or engage in a religious practice he does not believe in during public meetings led by people representing the political authority in the exercise of their duties.
However, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned that decision, citing “Canada’s historical heritage” and noting several other Christian references in Canada’s national anthem and Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They found the prayer given was “broadly inclusive and non-denominational,” modeled after the one used in Canada’s House of Commons (Sign of the Cross notwithstanding). And they contended that the crucifix and Sacred Heart of Jesus were considered historical and cultural symbols, not symbols of religious devotion, “for a significant portion of the population.”
The Canadian Secular Alliance (CSA) has joined the MLQ to take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, hoping to see the government’s religious neutrality upheld during the public business of government, making Canada “a more secular — and therefore more just — society.”
The CSA’s consistent and principled defense of secular ideals has now been implicitly recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada. In October, the SCC will consider the request of the Quebec Secular Movement (MLQ) to enforce the secularism of public institutions by prohibiting the recitation of prayers in municipal assemblies. The decision will affect all pending prayer cases currently before the courts in Ontario and the rest of Canada.
No small potatoes, that.
You can read the CSA’s position paper on official prayer in government spaces here. The CSA encourages all interested parties to make a contribution on their homepage. Donations will go toward covering the expenses of participating in what will hopefully represent a landmark case for Canadian religious freedom.