Blog 054: Supreme Court Ends Prayer at Saguenay Council Meetings

David Rand

This is the first of three blogs by three different authors but with a common theme: the April 15th 2015 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. The other two are Blog 55 by Marco DeRossi and Blog 56 by Jacques Savard.

See also the Declaration of secular associations in Quebec and Canada concerning the 15 April 2015 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Finally some great news and a major victory for secularism: the Supreme Court of Canada has just delivered its judgement in the case involving prayer at Saguenay city council meetings and its decision is completely and unanimously in favour of the plaintiff, that is to Alain Simoneau supported by the Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ, Quebec Secular Mouvement). Recall that Mr. Simoneau and the MLQ were victorious before the Human Rights Tribunal in 2011 but that that decision was reversed by the Quebec Court of Appeal which ruled in 2013 in favour of mayor Jean Tremblay who wished to maintain the prayer at the beginning of each council meeting. The decision just made by the Supreme Court thus invalidates that of the Court of Appeal and re-establishes the plaintiff’s victory.

We congratulate the MLQ, Mr. Simoneau and all those organizations and individuals who supported them for this important and precedent-setting victory. We especially wish to underline the contribution of lawyer Luc Alarie who defended the cause before all three courts.

In the words of the Supreme Court,

The prayer recited by the municipal council in breach of the state’s duty of neutrality resulted in a distinction, exclusion and preference based on religion — that is, based on [Alain Simoneau]’s sincere atheism — which, in combination with the circumstances in which the prayer was recited, turned the meetings into a preferential space for people with theistic beliefs. The latter could participate in municipal democracy in an environment favourable to the expression of their beliefs. Although non-believers could also participate, the price for doing so was isolation, exclusion and stigmatization. This impaired [Alain Simoneau]’s right to exercise his freedom of conscience and religion.

In its ruling the Supreme Court declares that the prayer at the beginning of Saguenay city council meetings constitutes “a religious practice. Even if it is said to be inclusive, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers.” It also declares that the recognition of “the supremacy of God” in the preamble to the 1982 Canadian constitution “cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the state to consciously profess a theistic faith.” The ruling established beyond all doubt that the religious neutrality of the state is compulsory and its concept of neutrality puts belief and non-belief on equal footing.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court restored the testimony of anthropologist Daniel Baril which was set aside by the Court of Appeal on the pretext that his secular activism and links with the MLQ cast doubt on his objectivity: the Supreme Court rejected this argument categorically.

At the same time the Supreme Court decided not to rule on the question of religious symbols present in the meeting rooms of the city council, judging that the issue is beyond its jurisdiction. However, this does not imply that the decision would preclude any ban on religious symbols. In fact, the Court’s interpretation of freedom of conscience and of state neutrality remains compatible with the possibility of banning such symbols if worn by agents of the State, but without prohibiting them to users of public services.

From start to finish, this battle has lasted almost 9 years. Mayor Tremblay spent taxpayers’ money to defend relentlessly his cause, in spite of promising not to do so. Now he must pay the plaintiff more than $ 30 000, including compensatory and punitive damages, just as the Human Rights Tribunal ordered.

This ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada represents a victory for the rights of atheists and other non-believers, of course, for it recognizes clearly the notion that freedom of belief must include freedom of non-belief. But it is also a victory for the freedom of conscience of everyone, including believers, because it puts an end to the imposition of a religious ceremony in a public institution, a ceremony which is both useless and inappropriate in such a context, an imposition which cannot be justified, regardless of the religion or lack thereof of each person in attendance.

Already the effects of this important court decision are beginning to be felt. The mayors of Lévis and Louiseville have indicated their intention to abandon prayers, In Montreal, the council of the borough of Pierrefonds-Roxboro is reconsidering its practice of prayer. The mayor of Ottawa announced that that city’s practice of prayer must be re-evaluated. The Supreme Court decision will have consequences across Canada. One can only rejoice! Although the decision has rendered legally null and void the recognition of the “the supremacy of God” in the preamble to the constitution, we nevertheless continue to demand the withdrawal of this phrase because it contradicts both the spirit and the letter of the Court’s ruling and is incompatible with fundamental rights. Furthermore, the principle of religious neutrality of the state, emphasized by the judges, may very well have positive implications for secularism that go well beyond the specific issue of prayer.

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