The Quebec Court of Appeal and Saguenay City Council Prayers

The Quebec Court of Appeal Repudiates Secularism

David Rand, 30th May 2013

The Court of Appeal of Quebec has just ruled in favour of Jean Tremblay, mayor of the City of Saguenay, with regard to the reciting of prayers at public city council meetings. In a judgement rendered 27th May 2013, the Court set aside the decision of the Human Rights Tribunal of 9th February 2011 which ruled that the City and its mayor violated in a discriminatory manner the rights of the citizen Alain Simoneau who had complained about the recitation of a prayer at the beginning of each council meeting, as well as the presence of religious symbols in the rooms where meetings were held. Mr. Simoneau had the support of the Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ, Quebec Secular Movement).

This outcome convinces us, if indeed any further evidence were required, of the necessity that a secularism charter be adopted by the government. Indeed, the absence of such a charter in Quebec was among the reasons invoked by Justice Gagnon in the Court’s decision. He therefore falls back upon his own understanding of the concept of religious neutrality, and that understanding closely resembles the Canadian concept of multiculturalism.

The reasoning of Justice Gagnon, which represents some 80% of the 40-page decision, reads like a manifesto for “open” secularism – that is to say, the version of so-called secularism which is in fact not secular because it allows religious interference in the affairs of state – with its endless references to cultural diversity, religious heritage, values of “tolerance and openness to diversity” and to “repères historiques” (“historical guidelines”) to justify the maintenance of some very dubious traditions. Thus when the good judge refers to secularism – true secularism which should require no adjective – he generally encumbers it with the qualifier “integral” or caricatures it with expressions such as “laïcité tous azimuts” (“over-the-top secularism”). Daniel Baril, expert witness in anthropology for Mr. Simoneau and the MLQ, is dismissed as “propagandist of an ideology” and his expertise rejected as inspired by “a form of absolutism.” Yet, his analysis was based on the anthropology of religious ritual and not on any secularist activist point of view.

The judge adopted as his own the opinion of theologian Lefebvre, expert witness for the City and the mayor, that the contested prayer – addressed to “all-powerful God” – is not really a prayer. Rather, said the theologian, it is inspired by “theistic modernity” which conceives of a superior being as “reference and foundation of free and democratic states.” Although he criticizes Tremblay for the mayor’s intransigence and complete lack of discernment, the judge maintains that the use of a theistic prayer does not violate the values of a humanist atheist. This, in spite of the numerous declarations of Tremblay which clearly indicate the sectarian Catholic nature of his actions.

The complainant Alain Simoneau is chided for not being truly bothered by the recitation of the prayer, during which he would keep respectfully silent. Would the judge have preferred that Simoneau yell and complain loudly throughout the prayer in order to prove that his personal values had indeed been violated? Mr. Simoneau had the integrity to say that it was not the prayer itself which he found objectionable, rather the fact that it is simply not appropriate at a council meeting. In other words, he did not consider it a personal affront but rather a matter of principle, a principle which the Court refused to recognize.

In an effort to justify a religious observance in municipal affairs, the judge draws up a list of flagrant violations of the principle of secularism in Quebec and in Canada: the mention of “the supremacy of God” in the preamble to the Canadian Charter; constitutional guarantees for separate religious schools; the decision by the Quebec National Assembly to leave the crucifix about the speaker’s chair in the main chamber; theistic references in the Canadian national anthem; the white cross which is part of the Quebec flag; and so on. These examples legitimize each other, each one justifying the others. The whole collection is predicated on the importance of “historical memory.” Again according to Justice Gagnon, to remove religious practices and symbols from public institutions would amount to a sort of historical Alzheimer’s disease!

The good judge seems to have a droll sense of history and a selective memory. The goal of secularism which he opposes with such stubbornness is not to erase history, but, on the contrary, to learn important lessons from it. Throughout the history of Quebec, the religious tradition so treasured by the mayor of Saguenay has been the agent of the most oppressive obscurantism. If that tradition is an integral part of the “historical values” of Quebec society, we must not forget just how harmful those values have been.

In summary, the formal adoption of a charter of secularism for Quebec is urgent. As Djemila Benhabib has eloquently stated, a formal and explicit reference to secularism in Quebec legislation is the only effective means to stop the sort of deplorable decline of which the recent decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal is a sad example. If we allow Catholics to keep these privileges, these prayers, these crucifixes and other symbols in state institutions, then what right will be have to refuse accommodations which other religions will surely demand, or already demand. This erosion must be stopped.

David Rand
Atheist Freethinkers

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