Prayer in Canadian City Councils


Like in the United States, Canada has been having public debates about the role of religion in society for a number of years now. But, unlike in the US, religion, while it prevails in the public sphere quite openly, is not something that we openly discuss. If I go to a store at Christmas time, I will hear “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” as often as I will hear “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” There are also churches everywhere, and religious groups have a lot of privileges where taxes and land ownership are concerned. And, of course, we have prayers in public offices. Our country has a National Day of Prayer and council meetings tend to start with a prayer. While these prayers are often more on the interfaith side of things, they still assume a god and they are still religious in nature. As such, this has sparked a debate.

One of my city’s news papers, the Herald, published this article on recent events:
“City of Calgary lawyers will review the Supreme Court of Canada’s 101- page ruling against prayer in council to determine if Mayor Naheed Nenshi can still recite the 30 words that begin every council meeting.
Many cities have announced they will suspend or cease their traditional council prayers after Canada’s top court ordered the town council of Saguenay, Que., to discontinue the practice and remove Catholic symbols from council chambers.
The reading of a Catholic prayer at council meetings infringes on freedom of conscience and religion, the court said in a unanimous ruling Wednesday.
Canadian society has evolved and given rise to a ‘concept of neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs,’ the judgment said.
‘The state must instead remain neutral in this regard.’
The ruling puts an end to an eight- year legal battle that pitted atheist Alain Simoneau and a secular- rights organization against Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay.
Several municipalities reacted swiftly to the ruling. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson skipped prayers at a council meeting Wednesday pending a review of the decision. Windsor said it will do away with the Lord’s Prayer in the wake of the ruling, but the mayors of Winnipeg and Oshawa told reporters they would not immediately put an end to the practice.
Calgary isn’t yet sure how to proceed at Monday’s special council meeting.
For council’s long- standing custom, the mayor asks everyone in chambers to stand for a customary opening prayer that invokes God but doesn’t single out a particular faith:
‘O God, author of all wisdom, knowledge and understanding, we ask thy guidance in our consultations to the end that truth and justice may prevail, in all our judgments. Amen.’
Nenshi, a practising Ismaili Muslim, recites the same prayer used by predecessor Dave Bronconnier, a Lutheran.
In an emailed statement, the mayor said the city’s law department will review the decision.
‘However, I do believe that faith has a role in the public square and we will explore ways of doing that in the context of today’s decision,’ Nenshi said.
Council has begun with a prayer since at least 1977, according to the city clerk’s office. A policy in place since 1986 allows for a minister to recite a prayer, but commonly the mayor or presiding deputy mayor does the honours.
Although the Supreme Court decision ruling is based on the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the province’s legislation parallels the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms on these tenets, says law professor Errol Mendes.
That would make a legal challenge by another community an uphill climb, according to Mendes, who teaches constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa.
‘I think it’s a fairly strong signal to the councils across the country that they really have to look at their practises,’ he said in an interview.
While many Calgary councillors are not religious, Jim Stevenson, a member of his Lutheran Church board, says it’s not the court’s place to decide if council prays.
‘Asking the Lord to watch over what we’re doing and to guide us — that’s what the purpose of prayer is, to look for spiritual guidance,’ Stevenson said.
‘So that would be offensive to me if they said we can’t do that if we choose to.’
If the regular prayer was stopped, Stevenson said he would silently pray to himself.
Coun. Gian- Carlo Carra, a nonpractising Catholic, said he understands separation of church and state but also likes the interfaith tradition that commences each meeting. ‘I’m fine with it. Apologies to the atheists out there,’ he said.
In the Saguenay case, Simoneau filed an initial complaint in 2007.
City officials introduced a bylaw in 2008 that changed the prayer to a new one it deemed more neutral.
But in 2011, Quebec’s human rights tribunal ordered an end to the prayers and religious symbols.
The Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the tribunal’s decision in 2013, expressing some reservations about religious symbols in the council chamber, but concluded the city imposed no religious views on its citizens and ruled reciting a prayer does not violate the religious neutrality of the city.
The Supreme Court of Canada disagreed.
‘This neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non- belief,” the ruling read. ‘It requires that the state abstain from taking any position and thus avoid adhering to a particular belief.
‘When all is said and done, the state’s duty to protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion means that it may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non- believers in public life to the detriment of others.’
In the Alberta legislature, the speaker starts each daily sitting with prayer. The justices’ ruling makes a point of not touching the House of Commons prayer because of parliamentary privilege, and that would also apply to Alberta’s house, legislature law clerk Rob Reynolds said.”
As I’m sure you can imagine, Withteeth and I aren’t really fans of our government having a religious bias. However, what Withteeth and I think isn’t as relevant as the data. To give you a bit of insight into the state of religion in Canada (unfortunately I don’t have the most up to date data because our Prime Minister doesn’t understand the value of it), in 2011 non-religious people made up 23.9% of the population. It has risen since then, but I don’t have reliable data on how much. I have read that anywhere from 30-53% of the Canadian population now identifies as non-religious. The 23.9% was an increase from the 16.5% of people who identified as non-religious 10 years earlier in 2001. Catholics made up 38.7% of the population in 2011, which was a decrease from the 43.2% of the population that had considered themselves Catholic a decade before. Again, I don’t have the numbers on how much it has decreased since 2011, but it has been suggested that the decrease in the number of people who consider themselves Catholic has continued. In fact, from what I read, it appears that only Orthodox Christianity has recorded an increase in followers in recent years. The Baptist church had gone from 2.5% of the population to 1.9%. The Presbyterian church had stayed at 1.4% of the population. The United Church had gone from 9.6% of the population to 6.1%. And the Anglican church had gone from 6.9% of the population to 5.0%. However, the Orthodox Church had stayed at 1.7 during that 10 year period and has apparently grown by 14.82% since then. Non-Christian religions as a whole made up 8.1% of the Canadian population in 2011, which was an increase from the 6.4% that they had made up in 2001. As such, the religious traditions of Canada’s past are a little out of date. While I mentioned that the prayers in councils tend to be more interfaith, they do still have a distinctly Christian feel to them. But we are no longer living in a time when Canada is nearly all Christian. In fact, we may have entered into a time when Canada is more non-religious than religious (though I don’t believe we are quite there yet). I believe that it is time that Canada begins to reflect these changes in how things are done.
But not everybody agrees with me. My interfaith group received an e-mail from a man who does not like the Supreme Court’s decision. He wrote “The Supreme Court of Canada’s Decision below [referring to the Herold piece above], is wrong – period!” His reasoning? “If there were ‘No GOD’ ~ the term ‘GOD’ could NOT have come about!” This is very faulty reasoning. We have a lot of terms for things that don’t actually exist, such as “unicorn” and “fairy.” And the concept of what a god is as changed over time. Many early gods were essentially just really strong humans. Humans are storytellers. We use stories to help us make sense of things that we don’t understand. We also use stories to teach values and traditions. Stories don’t necessarily reflect reality, so there is no reason to believe that gods must exist simply because the word exists. And, if the existence of a word did mean that the thing itself existed, then wouldn’t that mean that Thor exists? And the Flying Spaghetti Monster? And every other god that has ever been given a name? This logic simply does not work.
The man went on to say that “They [the Supreme Court] should have UNANIMOUSLY decided to STRENGTHEN the Social/Moral/diverse Religious ‘Fibre’ of our Canadian Mosaic Society by changing the House of Commons Prayer & that of ALL City Council & Government Public Sessions, etc.” When your society is highly secular, as Canada is, pushing religion on the populous doesn’t strengthen it, it tears it apart. Look at the US. Has it been strengthened by the push to make the country more religious? From where I stand, the growing non-religious populace has just been made to feel attacked and put on the defensive, which has led to them fighting back against the religious push. All of the court battles over 10 commandments and school prayers have resulted fro the push to make religion a more dominant part of the social landscape. Those types of battles don’t occur in countries that allow the populace to worship how they want while religion is kept out of the public sphere. He also assumes that religion and morality are interchangeable. This is not true. The moral strength of Canada is not threatened by the removal of prayer. He suggests that we make “All religions are facets of the same TRUTH ~ Let the different faiths exist & let them flourish in our Great Country of Canada to the Glory of the ONE GOD!” the prayer used at all government events. This is not adequate. For one thing, most religious people do not believe that all religions are facets of the same truth. Saying that they are will only enrage the most conservative of religious believers. For another, the one God remark makes it very clear that the Christian God is assumed to be the only true god, which kind of destroys the whole attempt at interfaith that occurred in the beginning. Further more, it ignores the secular populace completely. We make up a large percentage of the population, so we deserve to be represented as much as the religious do. Nobody is taking religion away, they are merely saying that no one group deserves to be represented above all others. This fact seems to go over the heads of so many religious people, and it is quite annoying.
He finishes by saying “Our Founding Fathers based our Canadian Constitution upon the Judeo/Christian Faith – the above would add & proclaim our ‘Unity in Diversity’ & ‘Unity in Divinity’ of ALL Canadian citizens!” Yes, the “our founding fathers” argument exists here too. The hilarious thing about this is we don’t have founding fathers like in the US. We have the Fathers of Confederation who came together to negotiate the creation of the country of Canada, but this is not all that similar to the work done by the Founding Fathers to create the US. For one, we were still a British Colony and had no intent to change that. For another, we had a lot larger of a land mass to deal with and were largely interested in preventing the US from taking any of it. They negotiated terms with one another to bring the various provinces (only some of which joined at the time) together as one country, but they did not need to make a constitution since Canada was still a colony. The original constitution of Canada was developed for Canada by the British parliament. Our constitution is not based on any religion any more than the American constitution is. It is merely a set of rules that has been revised many times to reflect changing times that is meant to give Canadians certain rights and freedoms. And no, the prayer he offered does not in any way support or reflect all Canadians. My diversity is ignored, as is my right to not believe in any divinity. How can anything that ignores a large chunk of society proclaim anything about all of us.
It is a huge mistake to assume that representing your personal beliefs represents all beliefs. Just because you feel represented doesn’t mean that everyone else will. And just because you believe something to encompass everyone doesn’t mean that it does. We all have biases, and those biases blind us to the various beliefs that we don’t hold. What is more, not representing anybody is not the same as taking away your rights. If the government doesn’t say a prayer, then they aren’t representing any specific religious beliefs. However, they also aren’t removing any freedoms from anyone. The religious can still pray when and where they want to, they just no longer have the right to force their prayers on me. They are losing a privilege that I don’t have, but their rights and freedoms are still in tact.
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