Major Victory for Secularism in Canada!
The Supreme Court of Canada Ends Prayer at Municipal Meetings
The associations signatory to this declaration enthusiastically welcome the unanimous and categorical decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, rendered 15 April 2015, prohibiting prayers at Saguenay city council meetings, thus ruling completely in favour of the plaintiff 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 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 15 April 2015 decision by the Supreme Court thus invalidates that of the Court of Appeal and re-establishes the plaintiff’s victory. It also re-establishes the obligation for Mayor Tremblay to pay compensatory and punitive damages to the plaintiff.
This is a major victory for secularism. 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.
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. Several cities both in Quebec and outside have already announced that they are re-evaluating their practice of prayers at council meetings. The Supreme Court decision will have consequences across Canada. One can only rejoice! Although the Supreme Court’s 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.
Other signing associations (in alphabetical order):
- Association humaniste du Québec (AHQ)
- Association québécoise des Nord-Africains pour la laïcité (AQNAL)
- British Columbia Humanist Association
- Canadian Secular Alliance (CSA)
- Humanist Canada
- Ontario Humanist Society
- Secular Connexion Séculaire (SCS)
- Secular Ontario
- Veronica Abbass, editor-in-chief, Canadian Atheist
- Ferid Chikhi, conseiller en intégration socioculturelle
- Dr. Richard G. L. Thain
The MLQ wishes to thank the group Atheist Freethinkers for its support of the cause of secularism and for its publication of this declaration.