Canada’s Supreme Court Hesitates on Municipal Government Prayer Question October 19, 2014

Canada’s Supreme Court Hesitates on Municipal Government Prayer Question

Maybe you remember our previous coverage of the Saguenay prayer case.

To recap quickly: Alain Simoneau, citizen of Saguenay (Quebec), raised a challenge against his municipal government’s practice of opening public meetings with a prayer (containing references to Almighty God and bracketed on both ends by the Sign of the Cross, a particularly Catholic prayer gesture). Quebec’s human rights tribunal ruled that the rights of non-believers were being violated, the Court of Appeal overturned that decision (because tradition!), and now the case is being decided at the level of the national Supreme Court.

Canadian Supreme Court

But not just yet.

The Supreme Court of Canada has reserved decision in the case following the October 14 hearing (meaning they’ll eventually decide the case, even if they don’t do it immediately), in which supporters of the practice argued that the prayer has not been “an attempt to impose religious worship, or favour one religion over any other — but merely a tradition that reflects the city’s historical ‘cultural’ heritage.” After all, the 2001 census found that Quebec, as a whole, is 83% Catholic, and Saguenay in particular is about 96% Catholic. Add other Christian denominations to the mix, and that figure inches up to 97%.

If religious freedom protections were meant to protect the majority rule, those statistics would be damning for everybody else.

The trouble with that argument, however, is that human rights law on the subject of religious freedom is meant to protect the rights of religious minorities, including some 4,000 citizens of Saguenay who do not profess any religion at all.

Lawyers defending Saguenay’s practice essentially argued that non-believers are not entitled to government neutrality on religion, since the trappings of religion and invocations of God appear frequently in Canadian public business, as in parliamentary prayers or judicial oaths. They also invoked references to “the supremacy of God” in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms — a state of affairs that concerns groups like Canadian Secular Alliance, precisely because it is used to defend these sorts of exclusionary actions. (Learn more about the CSA’s push for a secular Charter in this PDF.)

Indeed, lawyer Richard Bergeron invoked the Charter rhetorically in this case, asking: “If the Canadian Constitution has such a reference, then why would a text that has such a reference be unconstitutional?”

Responses from individual Supreme Court justices seem well aware of the merits of Simoneau’s complaint: Justice Rosalie Abella said she had a hard time imagining the invocation had “no religious purpose,” and Justice Richard Wagner dismissed the idea that the Saguenay prayers were inclusive, pointing out the context provided by the Sign of the Cross.

The delay in reaching a decision, then, likely comes from the high stakes of this case. If the Supreme Court chooses to uphold the Tribunal’s original response — that the conscience rights of non-Christians are violated by government prayer — the impact could be felt in municipalities across Canada. Media sources expect that no judgment will be rendered until 2015.

But the justices’ responses suggest that, when it happens, the court just might be on our side.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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